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…
Within 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.
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!”