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.