#448: The Hanging Captain (1933) by Henry Wade

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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 four Wade novels in paperback — The Duke of York’s Steps (1929), The Hanging Captain (1933), Mist on the Saltings (1933), and 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.

Wade catches the people in his story gorgeously at their first appearance, and is able to use them effectively for the few scenes each needs to play their part.  Lott is an interesting one, too: slightly conceited without being priggish, and prone to amusing agonies at the hands of his profession — the terror of spending a night in Birmingham, say, or enduring a “desperately tedious” train journey of some 2 hours and 10 minutes to travel “a distance of barely 40 miles”, or getting shy when required to approach the stage door of a theatre.  They’re not humorous in isolation per se, but when weighed against Lott’s not unpleasant demeanour these little moments strike home perfectly.  Against the commonsense Dawle — who diagnoses the problems of the padre in the case as “too much fasting and too little fun” — he makes a perfect foil and I’d happily read 30 books of these two solving crimes and getting one up on each other in turn.

Hanging Captain Murder RoomIf the book has flaws — beyond, if Mr. Gotts is anything to go by, Wade having apparently never heard a Birmingham accent — it’s that a few too many of its core ideas have aged a bit too much to carry the necessary power (Good heavens — the scandal of arresting the High Sheriff of the county! Or the Lord Lieutenant!  Just think!) and that some of the attitudes are perhaps a little too (Nick Fuller will correct me here, I hope…) right-wing to feel comfortable, not least the defence of the death penalty on the grounds that “there is no known case of a man having been unjustly hanged”.  Wade writes movingly and powerfully about the War, of course, all the more so for the restraint he puts into it, but even for someone has happy to mire themselves in the 1930s as myself this feels a little creaky and fussy overall.

And the plot, too, lets itself down in the closing stages by suddenly introducing a bunch of clewing that could have appeared much sooner, as well as resorting to an especially egregious false clue that directs attention in a manner that’s probably meant to be playful but ends up feeling like a cheat.  And for all the English Restraint on show to devolve into a gangsterish chase-and-shoot: tut-tut, Old Man, what would the neighbours think?  So it’s overall a minor success that bodes well for Wade’s future novels, and I look forward to reading those at the same snail’s pace I’ve started these.  Don’t watch this space…

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See also

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: The hanging captain’s death is believed to be a suicide (possibly due to impotence, a desire to frame his wife’s lover, or financial difficulties) until a Dr. Priestleyish guest proves murder, much to the horror of the Chief Constable, who wishes to hush it all up. There are only two suspects, who, of course, each need a detective to follow their trail: an interesting technique that, dividing the reader’s sympathies between the cocky and impetuous Lott and the unimaginatively logical Dawle, focuses the interest on the detection without the need for any silly most unlikely culprit.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: Whilst this is definitely a puzzle focused novel, I still think it can be seen as a transitioning text for Wade between his puzzle focused novels and his character ones. Character depictions although not always long are insightful, especially in the opening chapters, where Griselda’s clothes are allowed to be representative of her mood or emotions.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Rumble Murders from last week because they were both written by a Henry, and both published under a pseudonym; additionally, both involve a potentially unfaithful wife, a murder taking place while a guest is staying at the house central to the plot, the use of a ladder on the premises to examine a window which may be central to the commission of the crime, and a collaboration between two sets of detectives; and both books feature a floorplan of the house where the crime is committed.  Whew.

21 thoughts on “#448: The Hanging Captain (1933) by Henry Wade

  1. Right now I’m actually in the middle of the only Wade book I own – Lonely Magdalen, because it was cheap and easy to get – and I’m quite enjoying it so far, mainly as the character work has been fascinating.

    • The Duke of York’s Steps might be the single least memorable book I’ve ever read from a character perspective (I say this because I remember not a single thing about any of them) so I am heartened to hear that Wade made in-roads on this aspect of his writing.

      While the plot here is less ingenious, the improvement in the writing is superb, and actually serves as an impetus for quite some optimism for Wade’s other works. I hope to return to him before too long, but given the diversity of my TBR that’s an unlikely prospect…

  2. I’ll disagree that Henry Wade’s *NOT* right-wing? Not bloody likely!

    Wade was conservative to the core; the central theme of his books is the decline of the English ruling class, as seen by one of them – destroyed first by war, then by the Welfare State.

    I recommend Curt Evans’ “Spectrum of English Murder”, where he looks at Wade and the Socialist Coles.

    • Oh, no, I meant you’d correct me if I was misinterpreting Wade’s stance as right-wing, following our discussion on politics in detective fiction with Ellery Queen and my professed ignorance of such matters. I thought I’d tentatively venture forth int such matters now when I see them, since the background of these events — the welfare state in particular — is going to become increasingly unavoidable in this era of novel.

      • Having read Curtis’ book I got the impression that Wade’s earlier books were much less reactionary than his post WW2 ones and that in fact he was often criticising or undermining the aristocracy in his earlier books, as well as disagreeing with police brutality etc. I could be mis-remembering of course as I was socialising some chicks (literally, not slang), so I was reading this with chickens on my legs and occasionally my shoulder. Therefore, getting back to the point, I’m wondering whether the right wing opinions in this book were not being entirely endorsed, but being included in characters we are not supposed to like or agree with?
        Out of the two Wades you have left, Heir Presumptive is probably the next best for you in my opinion.
        Thanks for the link as well.

        • A nice idea, but the opinions are expressed by our policemen, who while not held up as paradigms of virtue are certainly intended sympathetically. I think it’s more a sort of post-colonial faith in the essential uprightness of British justice, though weirdly blinkered for someone who had been through a world war…

          I hear nothing bu good things about Heir Presumptive, and am very much looking forward to it. However, I also heard nothing bu good things about Tragedy at Law and thoroughly hated the first 30 or so pages of that, so judgement is reserved until I get there! But the loosening up of Wade’s prose is a most welcome development, and I’m looking forward to snapping up some of those Kindle titles, too, in the absence of any physical reprints…

          • Why wouldn’t you? These books should be judged first and foremost as detective stories. Everything else is secondary and should never take anything away from a genuinely well-written, solidly plotted mystery novel.

            Anyway, thank you for the reminder I really have to return to Wade one of these days. Constable, Guard Thyself was great!

            • I’ll second the opinion on Constable, Guard Thyself. It was the first Wade mystery novel I managed to read to the end and very much enjoyed. I couldn’t finish the book you reviewed here and gave up on Wade until Martin Edwards’ numerous positive reviews managed to tempt me to try him again. CONSTABLE… is both a clever detective novel and one of the most revelatory books about policemen I’ve read from this period.

            • Good to know, thanks, John — it’s my understanding that C,GT is at least borderline impossible and so I’d obviously ear-marked that for future reading, but it’s good to know it has sufficient qualities to recommend. Perhaps I better snap it up on Kindle before it disappears…

      • The only thing I’d take issue with is that left-wing and right-wing had very different meanings in the 1930s compared to today so using those terms can cause some confusion. And terms like conservative and liberal have changed their meanings even more dramatically so they cause even more confusion.

        I’d be more inclined to think of Wade as a reactionary. In the sense of someone who thinks that change is most likely to turn out to be change for the worse.

        • I get the impression that being Conservative or Liberal means very different things in different countryies, yeah; I thought left-wing and right-wing were pretty constant themes, but then I remain largely ignorant of such things in my actual life.

          Probably a good clarification, though; thanks for raising it.

          • I thought left-wing and right-wing were pretty constant themes, but then I remain largely ignorant of such things in my actual life.

            Well there’s the Old Left and the New Left, and they have almost nothing in common. The New Left stated to replace the Old Left in the late 60s.

            And then, going back to golden age detective writers, you have someone like G.K. Chesterton who was right-wing but not at all in the sense that people understand such things today.

            You’re probably wise to keep clear of such things. Politics does not bring happiness.

  3. Thanks for the review, JJ – I seem to recall from other reviews that “Hanging Captain” and “Dying Alderman” are somewhat similar, with the latter novel as the superior work. So there might be better things in store? 😊

    I’ve only read two novels by Wade, and I’ve found them slightly wanting in clues. Time for me to dig out yet another novel by Rupert Penny… 😬

    • If I’ve got this right, Detective Inspector Lott also features in The Dying Alderman (there’s a reference to the conclusion of that case at his introduction in this one), so it would make sense for them to be thematically similar.

      Given that Wade’s (I thought) more prolific detective John Poole exists in this universe, I’d be curious as to why these were deemed not Poole-worthy. Are they notably different styles or something? I believe this is the final Lott book, so it’s not like Wade has parallel series in mind.

      I’m interested to learn of this Rupert Penny, too. Though he doesn’t sound like my kind of thing to be honest 😛

  4. I have only read The Dying Alderman, which contains a nice dying message, an interesting dynamic between its three sleuths, and a lot of class warfare. The book was . . . okay, so it makes sense that The Hanging Captain has been sitting on my shelf unread for over a year.

    Great minds, JJ . . .

    • Yeah, I feel even after this few books that Wade is someone who never really provokes a strong desire to devour his books. You — being not you, but the archetypal reader — turn to him for a bit of easy and comforting reading rather than excitement.
      He feels very much for the connoisseur to read occasionally while nodding in a sage manner, rather than someone you pick up, get absolutely blown away by, and then seize each book as you find it with increasing desperation as the list of ones you need gets shorter and shorter.

      Not, of course, that any of us feel like that about any authors at any point, Oh, no.

      • Yeah, I feel even after this few books that Wade is someone who never really provokes a strong desire to devour his books.

        I’m not sure about wanting to devour his books but I’d regard myself as a pretty keen Wade fan. I’ve only read five so far but I do intend eventually to read them all.

        I was pretty impressed by No Friendly Drop which I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet.

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