#599: Heir Presumptive (1935) by Henry Wade

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Without wishing to overlook the great work once done by The Murder Room, someone needs to reprint Henry Wade.  I enjoyed The Hanging Captain (1933) and very much enjoyed The Duke of York’s Steps (1929), but Heir Presumptive (1935) is in another class altogether and, like Craig Rice the other week, if he has any other books written with even half the fizz and joy of this one, those are books I wish to read…but, goddamn, the man’s fully OOP at present and something needs to be done.  Because if you haven’t read this one yet, I urge you to find it at the earliest opportunity, and that means we’ll then be in competition for any other paperbacks out there once you love this as much as I did.

Essentially the wonderful Ealing black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) played straight, this sees Eustace Hendel, wastrel man-about-town in the “wrong” arm of a betitled family, suddenly elevated into sniffing distance of the baronetcy when a swimming accident disposes of two of the four men ahead of him in succession.  What if, he begins to wonder, the others were to die?  Surely it would clear up his financial and social difficulties, and with his medical training languishing unused and largely unknown by those around him, surely he’d be able to devise some clever, undetectable scheme…

Of course, Eustace doesn’t start out a murderous brute, and is instead gradually shaped by what Jim Thompson once called “the alchemy of necessity” — at first merely rattled by the officious nature of the family arm he’s barely seen in his adult life, his transformation to the heterodox philosophy of murder is expedited by the desire to retain face, position, and lifestyle…plus the (unknown to Eustace) pecuniary motives of his lover Jill, who simply wishes to be kept in a comfort and style of her choosing, and to be saved a life on the music hall board where she made her name — rather than swimming in “London’s trout stream [where] every rotten fellow who wanted a girl went fishing”.  They’re not monsters, these two, just a little selfish and a little too self-concerned (witness them casting their companions to the wind as they cancel evening plans with nary a backwards glance) and the steps which lead to murder are not taken at all lightly:

In the cold light of morning there came to him the full realisation of what he was going to do.  Murder!  Brutal, cold-blooded murder of a relation and a host.  There was no blinking it.  And under the eyes, almost, of a woman whom he cared for and who had just been through a terrible tragedy of her own.  A horrible, cruel deed if ever there was one.

It spoils nothing to reveal that murder is indeed done, and it’s necessary to disclose it because that murder has not been discussed nearly enough in the reviews of this book I’ve read elsewhere.  For all the violent death this genre produced, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything as bracing as the up-close murder Wade takes us through.  It’s the culmination of a perfectly-paced set piece and, where others of possibly greater repute — Frances Iles, Freeman Wills Crofts — took us through inverted plots right up to the act itself and then shied away, Wade’s refusal to skim the deed is staggering: holy crap, you actually watch this victim die, an see him knowing he’s going to die, and knowing that he’s been murdered into the bargain.  In the modern era of shock and shlock, to see Wade’s steady hand pilot you through a violent deed — there is plenty of blood, though not a drop of it is pornographic — with such deliberation and fortitude feels like a coruscating condemnation of every coward who faded to black just as violence was about to be done, or who sought to glory in the waste of any life spilled lightly purely for entertainment.

The second half of the book, then, sees Eustace halfway up his mountain, and yet the remaining journey is steeper and more perilous still.  Pitfalls lurk around every corner — “the police were never so dangerous, never so much in earnest, as when they were being perfectly fair”, which feels like a comment on GAD as a whole — and there will be problems aplenty before this is all resolved.  For all the conventions of the first half in setting up the trappings of a familiar story, the concluding half is adroitly judged and measured: it seemed to me that there were four possible outcomes to the affair, and until the final chapter I couldn’t have told you which one Wade was going to take.  What he chooses is perfect, but I’d love to Poisoned Chocolates Case this and offer some of the tantalising alternatives…

Heir Presumptive KindleWithin the plot, Eustace Hendel is another of inverted crime fiction’s Jean-Baptiste Grenouilles in that he dominates proceedings so much almost no-one else gets a look in.  We have another amusing Coroner who “had his own very strong opinions, based on long experience” and takes great pleasure in “constantly being addressed as ‘Sir'” by a distinguished witness — and we get to enjoy the alternative perspective on this when Eustace is told that “Coroners are a law unto themselves” and that legal steps are being taken to reduce such behaviour.  And Wade’s own experiences of the Great War can be felt in the mot juste of summing up “the generation of women who had learnt, in four terrible years, not to retire in the face of trouble”.  One or two characters make it through the fog, of course, but the milieu of Eustace Hendel is only ever supposed to be about Eustace Hendel.

In fact, I’m going to call it: this is a better inverted mystery than Iles’ Malice Aforethought (1931), which had for me previously sat at the pinnacle of the subgenre.  Wade’s plotting is neater, his misdirecting more assured, and his conclusion more convincing and, it must be said, fittingly earned by the narrative that precedes it.  I can only presume that this is out of print because, in making it available before their collapse, The Murder Room unwittingly tied the rights up; surely following the recent upswell of interest in classic detective fiction this would be on the tongue-tip of anyone involved in suggesting titles to reissue.  It’s on Kindle if you want it, but doesn’t it really deserve a beautiful British Library cover and a characteristically thorough and enticing introduction by Martin Edwards?  A masterpiece of the form, and doubtless another guaranteed entry on my Top Ten GAD Novels of All Time list when I eventually get round to nailing my colours to that mast.  Find it, as I said above, at your earliest opportunity.


See also

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: As the novel goes on the reader will increasingly notice that Eustace does not have the level of control over his situation that he presumes. This manifests itself in several forms, not least the responses of other characters to Eustace. Here I feel Wade is particularly effective as his style of narration, a sympathetic third person, means that the reader will be drawing inferences from things that are taking place that Eustace is not aware of. They will know that his position is far more precarious than he realizes.

D for Doom @ Vintage Pop Fictions: The potential disadvantage of a story told entirely from the point of view of a murderer is that a murderer makes a less than sympathetic protagonist. Wade handles this difficulty skillfully. There’s not a great deal to admire in Eustace Hendel but we can’t help feeling vaguely sorry for him as his schemes never quite work out as he’d hoped. We’re appalled by his selfishness but he’s a hapless victim of his own delusions rather than a monster, although of course a person driven entirely by self-interest and self-delusion does become monstrous in practice.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Surely one of the best crime novels ever written. The reader sees the hunt from the other side—sees the systematic extermination of a series of heirs through the eyes of the oddly sympathetic murderer, Eustace Hendel, driven to commit his crimes by a love of money, and an over-riding woman. Like Macbeth, he is weak and opportunistic, rather than deliberately malevolent. Despite a reference to the “inferiority complex” on p. 130, it is heartening to see that “psychology” is avoided, and that the murderer has a genuine motive: “Succession to the peerage and estates! How magnificent it sounded. It meant Jill and comfort and money to play with and position—the House of Lords!”

30 thoughts on “#599: Heir Presumptive (1935) by Henry Wade

  1. I went through some trouble two years ago to acquire a few Henry Wade novels (including this one), all in the 1980s Perennial Library series that you led with. Where are they? Cast down to the darkest depths of Mount To Be Read – the pile of books that I actually had to move to the floor because my woefully inadequate bookshelves are full. There they sit, alongside numerous Carolus Deene novels by Leo Bruce, post-mystery Michael Gilbert thrillers, and several John Russell Fearn books purchased in a spasm of naive optimism.

    Why did Wade befall this fate? I don’t know – the books looked kind of long and the covers not too interesting. Plus they’re thick and I could clear up a lot of shelf space for the likes of Anthony Boucher and Herbert Brean.

    Anyway, you’ve freed at least one book from perdition today. Not that I’ll read it in the next few months, but it has graduated to the mixed authors pile.


    • The three Wades I’ve now read are all kinda long, and that doesn’t always work in their favour — Duke of York’s Steps would be a far better-regarded book if about 20% was chopped off it — but the length of Heir Presumptive, and the inexorable build over that duration, is one of its biggest strengths. I’m telling you, this is (in my opinion, of course) a book for the ages: marshalled intelligently, constructed with minute care.

      I’m now fighting dual urges: to rush out and buy up all the Wade novels from The Murder Room before they vanish, and to hold off for him to drop out of copyright and someone to hopefully pick him up and produce lovely editions of his stuff. The plots of New Graves at Great Norne, The Dying Alderman, and Constable Guard Thyself sound marvellous…and now I know he can knock it so far out of the park like this, I’m itching to read more by him…


  2. I write about this extensively in The Spectrum of English Murder, including the murder you mention. It’s available, so you might like to check out. It has systematic spoiler warnings. I am largely responsible for the Murder Room situation, but at the time it seemed like the best option. I helped get it arranged with Wade’s surviving son, to whom my book is dedicated.


    • Oh, please don’t be under the impression that I’m criticising the Murder Room situation — it was wonderful to see them come out of nowhere with all these classics I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to read — obscure Carrs, McCloy, Connnigton, Boucher, Pamela Branch, Stanley Ellin, George Higgins, and more besides. As you say, at the time there wasn’t much else offering that sort of clientele, and it got me into a bunch of authors I otherwise would still be waiting to see in print.

      And, hey, at least we know the rights are relatively streamlined, right? If you were able to organise it with one member of the family, it’s hopefully just a matter of time before they turn up in paperback (the Gordian knot of Carr’s rights would make fascinating reading, I’m sure, to those of us who are ignorant of such things). And I have the option of grabbing some ebook Wades to tide me over — any recommendations?

      And, as to TSoEM, I’m — like with Crofts, Rhode, and Connnigton for MotHM — imagining a greater familiarity with the work of the authors will help. But Masters is such an enlightening read that, rest assured, Spectrum is on my TBB!


  3. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I know you had blogged earlier about the shutting down of Murder Room – but the kindle editions of their releases are still available on Amazon?

    I’ve read, to date, two Wade novels: Duke of York and Constable. Neither of which I think I was especially enamoured by, and as such I hadn’t picked up anything else, even though I’ve heard good things about Dying Alderman. Perhaps it is time for a re-visit!


    • I think “shutting down” was simply “we’re not putting any more money into this” so there would be no new authors/titles added. I imagine rights enable them to keep selling the books, and, as ebooks, the overheads are taken care of, so why not leave them out there so people can still read them? I’ve bought quite a few since the closure was announced.

      Constable I’m intrigued by on account of its borderline impossibility, so I might head there next. It was also written in the same period as Heir Presumptive, I believe, so maybe Wade was in a sort of writing idiom that I enjoy. Time will tell…


  4. It’s one of those rare reading moments where our tastes seem to align as I really enjoyed one as well! I wholeheartedly agree that Wade’s output needs to be more widely available. I got lucky finding three Wade novels in a charity shop a few years ago, but since it’s been pretty hard to track him down, reasonably priced – barring Lonely Magdalen. I wonder if Berkeley hadn’t written Malice Aforethought, would titles such as this one come along as soon? I think AB’s books were definitely influential.
    Thanks for this review, as it has put Wade back on my ‘I need to find more of him’ radar.


    • Nooooooo! More competition….!!!

      I, er, mean, yes. With so many authors lingering OOP — even in these unimaginable days of DSP, British Library, Coachwhip, Penzler, etc — it can be difficult to keep track of who you want to remember to read, can’t it? If the books don’t naturally crop up, someone’s always going to slide off the edge of your memory.

      Glad we’re finding some common ground. Makes that review of The Chinese Chop edge ever-closer…


      • Yes there really are too many names to keep a hold of, so invariably half a dozen or so fall off my radar until a timely review, makes me go ‘oh yeah I meant to read more by them.’
        Our common ground in terms of reading always has a nice surprise element to it, as it’s not easy to predict.


        • This, in part, is why I like to read (slightly) broadly in the genre: something like The Voice of the Corpse or Home Sweet Homicide should not be my sort of thing at all, but I loved them. I can’t cover quite your range of authors and styles — you read so fast I reckon you’re probably a fire risk — but it’s nice to try something unlikely and be delighted ever so often.

          And at least I keep us guessing, eh?

          Liked by 1 person

  5. It sounds interesting. I didn’t much like “The Duke of York’s Steps” because I thought the murderer’s motives, when we learned them, were much more interesting than the mystery of who the murderer was.
    ” Kind Hearts and Coronets” was inspired by a novel – “Israel Rank” by Roy Horniman. I wonder if Wade had read it.


    • I enjoyed DoYS more for its overall gloomy mod than the plot, it must be said — and, after reading it I wasn’t entirely sure I’d done the right thing by buying a few of them at once. But this was a wonderful experience, and I;m willing to forgive him a few duds on the back of this — so I should try and read him again while this warm glow persists!

      Did not realise Kind Hearts was inspired by a book. A wonderful film, though the darkness and absurdity of The Ladykillerswill always compel that one to me over all other Ealing offers.


  6. Wade’s name is one I’d never heard until I saw it in the introduction to another book I recently read. A few days later I found a Harper Collins edition of The Hanging Captain and snatched it up. Now that I’ve seen your reviews I very glad I did.


  7. Hooray! So happy to hear that this one worked so well for you. It remains one of my favorite inverted stories ever and I agree that it has a super payoff. Thanks also for quoting and linking to my review. 🙂


    • There’s so much to like in this, I’m delighted to finally be able to count myself among its fans. Here’s hoping there are still plenty of inverted mysteries out there to inspire such joy in you, Aidan!


  8. Excellent review. I am a huge fan of this book and of Wade. The reason I don’t think it quite matches Francis Iles’ best is that Roy Horniman had come up with more or less the same basic idea almost thirty years earlier in Israel Rank, a book I’ve long championed. But Heir Presumptive is still a really enjoyable book by a terrific writer. I am pleased to have persuaded Arcuturus to reissue Lonely Magdalen, but in an ideal world the British Library would publish some of the Wade novels too. There will, at the very least, be a Wade story in Settling Scores, the sporting anthology we are producing next year.


    • Lonely Magdalen is one of my intended purchases having now loved this — not least because it’s the one tree-book of Wade’s that’s been available in recent times — so thank-you for your role in making that available, Martin.

      Will be very interested to see how Wade applies himself to the short form mystery. I believe Policeman’s Lot was a short story collection, right? So obviously he wrote enough to fill one book, but the impression I’ve always had of him is as a novelist. Looking forward to finding out which one you’re featuring.


  9. Actually the rights aren’t streamlined. There are ten grandchildren. Honestly, people are fortunate the books were brought back into print in any form at all. I agree that it’s unfortunate that Murder Room doesn’t publicize them and certainly Wade is deserving of some attractive editions. I had written a uniform introduction for the reprints like I did for the Conniptions, but the editor of the series who commissioned it essentially was let go and that was that. As it was the Wade books barely slipped in, they were the last ones Murder Room put out and that was only because the contract already had been signed. The editor had planned to do all the Streets as well.


    • Actually the rights aren’t streamlined. There are ten grandchildren.

      This sounds…complicated. Good heavens, intellectual property rights are a morass, aren’t they? As someone who is entirely ignorant of how it works, I’d frankly love anyone with any experience of it all to write a post or How To guide, because it’s something I’m going to say Joe Public understand is important but doesn’t really understand, y’know?

      As it was the Wade books barely slipped in, they were the last ones Murder Room put out

      I remember this — I remember how the announcement came out of left-field, that they were putting out a ton of Wade novels at once. It was such a cool undertaking, and always fun to see what was going to be in the next tranche of reissues. Man, what might have been, eh?

      The editor had planned to do all the Streets as well.

      Wait…what?!! ALL of them?!!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I have only read one Wade, The Dying Alderman. I enjoyed it, particularly the competition between not one, not two, but THREE detectives. You might want to put it aside, JJ, because it contains a dying message, the solution of which forms the last words in the novel. Very clever, I thought, but I also think Wade can go on and on a bit, which drags the experience down. However, I do remember Curtis discussing HP in his book, and it seemed rather special. So one of these days, if I find a copy . . .


    • You’re confusing me with someone who doesn’t like dying messages — possibly the far more illustrious Scott Ratner. I’m not not a fan, they appeal to my weird puzzle brain when done well, but they’re possibly more open to abuse by unskilled writers on account of how the victim can be made to’ve meant almost anything (as Scott was talking about on FB). A good dying message is a joy forever.

      Wade does get a bit verbose, I agree, and I wonder if we can see in him the beginning of the bloat that became modern crime writing. He applied himself to such a wide range of styles, too, I believe, so I wonder if that virtuosity was in part a factor: not quite trusting that he’d done a good job with a new mode of expression, so really hammering it home. Just to be sure.


  11. Pingback: Heir Presumptive – Henry Wade (1935) – The Green Capsule

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