When The Murder Room, the ebook-only arm of publishing house Orion, announced a couple of years ago that they’d be releasing a bunch of Henry Wade’s novels I got quite excited and then proceeded to buy none of them. Instead, I eventually acquired three hard-to-find Wade novels in paperback — The Duke of York’s Steps (1929), The Hanging Captain (1933), and the apparent classic Heir Presumptive (1935) — and proceeded to read none of them, too. So, as I v-e-r-y-s-l-o-w-l-y make my way through these, I’m pleased to report that here it certainly seems Wade has learned a lot from that earlier book and grown significantly as an author in four short years.
As with She Had to Have Gas (1939) by Rupert Penny a couple of weeks ago, this takes a single crime and makes it the sole focus of its narrative in a way that is impressively maintained for a novel of some 300 pages. Faded English gentry Sir Herbert Sterron is found hanged in his study, with suicide expected, and only once things are fairly progressed do we get even the faintest whiff of murder. However what highly-esteemed genre expert Robert Adey was doing including this in his wonderful reference work Locked Room Murders (1991) I have no idea. There’s an unlocked window, for pity’s sake, which makes this about as much of a locked room murder as…something with an open window. Cue local man Superintendent Dawle and Scotland Yard hot property Detective-Inspector Lott chasing their suspects up, down, and all around the town on the way to a surprise unmasking and end credits. It’s a very enjoyable ride, complete with some of the finest character work I think I’ve encountered in the genre, and it only really falls down in the very last stretch, but we’ll get to that.
The old I-respect-you-but-I-don’t-like-you-oh-actually-I-do-like-you-you’re-quite-a-decent-chap-really locking of horns betwixt Dawle and Lott is pleasingly sidestepped, giving us two professionals who simply get on with their jobs and recognise the respect they’re showing each other. Each man has his ‘pigeon’, and each is perfectly justified in his enjoyment of emerging evidence that appears to knock the other’s intended suspect out of the running, but outside of that they share information, narrow the field, and catch their killer come the close. The plotting is not exemplary — in both Wades I’ve read now he seems to enjoy taking a run-up before actually getting going — and the sprinkling of clues is far from liberal or especially inspired, but it’s enjoyable and shows GAD as a refined and elegant machine with a clear purpose in mind.
The characters, however, are wonderful, from the police surgeon Dr. Tanwort, introduced as…
…a small, normally boisterous and confident little man, but in the presence of the rich and great he tended to a nervous hush or diffident garrulity according to the circumstances.
…to the butler Willing who, upon being complimented on his lodgings:
…inclined his head; the movement suggested that while he acknowledged the compliment he did not need it.
…to the moment Dawle’s suspicions about Sterron’s death are confirmed and he finds himself…
…in the happy position of being able to say “I told you so” to his Chief, though, of course, wild horses would not have induced him to say it. But he could, and did, with all possible respect, look it.