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.
If 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…
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.
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.