Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Henry Wade, The Dying Alderman (1930), and the Great War

One of the most important (and sadly overlooked) British crime writers of the Golden Age is Henry Wade (Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher).  Wade not only wrote several of the best puzzle-oriented tales from the period, he was also one of the key figures in the movement to shift the emphasis in the English mystery from the pure entertainment of the puzzle to the more serious concerns of the mainstream novel.  In most of Wade’s fiction one finds realistic depiction of police procedure and sustained, thoughtful explorations of setting, theme and character.  Wade’s fourth detective novel, The Dying Alderman (1930), superbly manages the difficult task of meshing a finely-wrought murder puzzle with realistic police procedure, well-drawn characters and serious themes.—The Passing Tramp

the author, Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher,
in World War One
 (photo courtesy Edward Aubrey-Fletcher)

Though Henry Wade’s best-known series police detective was Inspector John Poole, the author had another string to his investigative bow: Inspector Lott, who makes leading appearances in two novels, The Dying Alderman (1930) and The Hanging Captain (1932), plus a very fleeting turn in a later Poole tale (where we learn that Poole dislikes his rival).   The first of these novels in my view is the superior of the two--it is, indeed, one of the finest detective novels from the Golden Age.



Inspector Lott is an older, much less ingratiating version of Poole: sardonic and sarcastic, of presumably lower social origins and more left-wing political inclinations.  Wade describes the inspector in The Dying Alderman as follows:

[Lott] was rather tall, slim, fair-haired, and thirty-sevenish; his complexion was pink and white, his eyes blue and inclined to goggle—an inclination accentuated by the convex pince-nez attached by a golden chain apparently to the right ear.  He was dressed in neat black, with a winged collar, black and white tie and pointed shoes.  He looked, in fact, like a Government clerk, of refined education and Fabian tendencies.

While Lott indeed is not particularly likeable, his refined needling of the somewhat bumptious local constabulary in The Dying Alderman is a source of amusement for the reader, as we will shortly see.

The Dying Alderman takes place in “Quenborough,” the county town of Quenshire, (a stand-in for Wade's native Buckinghamshire).  To this setting Wade brought a vast amount of authority and experience as an important county landowner and councilor.  With the novel he produced a work that is both an engrossing portrayal of provincial society and politics and a deftly-clued murder puzzle. 

Critic Charles Shibuk chose The Dying Alderman as Wade’s best early novel, noting that it “is written and plotted with great clarity and precision, and remains surprisingly fresh today.”  In A Catalogue of Crime [COC] Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor concurred, praising the novel’s “narrative economy...characterization, unbroken suspense, subdued wit, local color, and...first-rate plot with a fine twist at the end.”  Like Shibuk, COC found that decades later the book remained fresh, declaring of it that it “holds up extremely well.”  Jacques Barzun later selected The Dying Alderman for his series One Hundred Classics of Crime Fiction.  More recently (2011, to be precise), the ever-perceptive Karyn Reeves of the A Penguin a Week blog, has noted, in a review of The Dying Alderman, Henry Wade's "deep and thorough understanding of police procedure." (see Penguin no. 266: The Dying Alderman by Henry Wade )

The Dying Alderman opens with a stormy meeting of the Quenborough Council.  There are the usual imprecations from Tom Garrett, the council’s one Socialist member, heartily despised by the others.  This time he insists that one of the councilors or aldermen must be leaking information about the Council’s working class housing plans to land speculators.  The mayor, local country squire Sir John Assington, indignantly denounces Garrett’s accusation, declaring that it “must be repudiated by every decent-minded man and woman on the council.”  Far from assenting to Assington’s affirmation of public piety, however, Alderman Basil Trant provocatively declares that he agrees with Garrett. 

Spurning the Mayor’s assurances as the irrelevant ramblings of a living anachronism, Alderman Trant insists that as an auctioneer he knows something about speculative land purchase and the council most certainly is facing a case of it: “I know that that land has been forced up to a fictitious value, and I agree with Mr. Garrett that the rise is due to leakage of information and probably to worse.”  Trant adds significantly that he has “a strong suspicion as to the source of this leakage” and that he “shall not rest” until he has exposed the malefactor, “however securely entrenched he may consider himself to be.”

At this point, any experienced mystery reader knows that Trant has effectively signed his own death warrant; and, sure enough, during the tea interval Trant is discovered still at the aldermen’s dais, dead from a knife wound in his neck.  Employing a device later associated with the ingenious American detective novelist Ellery Queen, Wade has Trant managing to have scrawled a brief, cryptic “dying message" before expiring.

As his tirade during the council meeting revealed, Trant was a splenetic individual who gave good cause to dislike him to numerous people, including Sir John Assington himself; the Deputy Mayor Voce Mardyke, a Quenborough solicitor; Hallis, porter of Quenborough Town Hall; and Trant’s own wife, Mary. 

The investigation is conducted by a trio of quite convincingly-portrayed policeman, whose byplay throughout the book is throughly enjoyable.  The Chief Constable, Captain Charles Race, owes his recent appointment to the support of Sir John Assington, Race having served during the Great War in the same regiment—the Quenshire Light Infantry—as Assington’s only son, who was killed in the conflict. 

Facing a case entwining some very important county figures, Race decides to call in Scotland Yard, much to the outrage of his dogged but bullheaded Superintendent, Vorley.  The Scotland Yard man, Inspector Lott, is aware of Vorley’s simmering resentment of him and does not hesitate to take his amusement at the superintendent’s expense.  Not only at odds personally, Lott and Vorley find themselves locking horns in the case they are investigating; for the two men have differing murder theories and resultantly are pursuing different suspects.  Which man turns out to be right (if either)?  You must read the book and see!

The Dying Alderman as a puzzle is superbly constructed and offers readers a master class in clueing.  Yet it also succeeds on another level, as a mainstream novel, exploring as it does such serious matters as the decline of England’ s landed gentry class, the tragic impact of World War One on English society and the pervasiveness of civic corruption.

Henry Wade's crime fiction reveals the author's preoccupation
with the lingering deteriorative effects on English society
of the mad carnage of World War One

Described by Chief Constable Race to Inspector Lott as “Sir John Assington, 12th Baronet, late M.F.H. [Master of Foxhounds], head of the oldest and richest county family in Quenshire, descendant of generals, ministers, Privy Councillors, Chairman of this, that and the other,” Assington has managed to hold on to much of his family’s wealth and position, acknowledgment of which had been made with his mayoral appointment in 1929.  Yet there are cracks in the Assington edifice of power.  As Trant was rude enough to point out to his face in public, Assington does function rather as a figurehead on the council.  Assington generally is respected for his heart (except by the contemptuous Trant), but no one speaks respectfully of his brains, as the very name “Assington” surely is intended to suggest.  

Chilton House
country seat of the Aubrey-Fletcher baronets

Worse for Assington, he is the last of his line, his brother having died in the Boer War and his son on the Western Front in 1918.  The heir to a baronetcy and a decorated Great War veteran, Henry Wade expends effort to make the reader feel the poignancy of this extinction of a family dedicated to service of country (whatever its other faults and failings may be):

Walking to the door, [Sir John] turned down an electric switch.  Instantly the dark walls became alive with Assingtons throughout the ages, revealed by well-shaded lights.  Assingtons in armour; Assingtons in doublet and hose; Assingtons in beards; Assingtons with side-whiskers; soldier Assingtons; political Assingtons; sporting Assingtons.  In the latter category, a portrait of Sir John in a pink coat, presented to their retiring Master by the subscribers of the Quenshire Hunt, held a prominent position.  Sir John paid no attention to it; a portrait of a boy in service dress was his objective.
           
“My poor boy, Edward,” he said.

Race looked with interest at the picture of his brother-officer, (Temporary) Captain Edward Assington, 5th Batt. Quenshire Light Infantry, killed in action near Solesmes, 12th October, 1918.  20 years of age.  The portrait, painted on his last leave in August 1918, was a remarkable one and struck a chord of vivid memory in Charles Race’s mind.  The features were those of a boy; the eyes were the eyes of a man of forty.

“It’s very like him, sir.”

Sir John was silent and Race, stealing a glance at him, saw that his lip was quivering.

With a sudden straightening of the shoulders the last of the line of Assingtons swung on his heel and strode towards the door.

Clearly Wade’s inclusion in The Dying Alderman of a passage such as this one is at odds with the frequent contention that Golden Age mystery novelists sought in their “escapist” works to lull their readership into forgetting all the unpleasant things in life (the murder itself being presented as a “game”).  Henry Wade to be sure never won fame as a serious Great War writer like Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon and I am sure he would have rejected any comparisons between them and himself as presumptuous, yet among English Golden Age crime writers no one of whom I am aware wrote more seriously and perceptively about the Great War than Wade.

Wilfred Owen

Siegfried Sassoon

Besides the lingering baleful impact on society of a decade-old war, another unhappy reality of life addressed forthrightly in The Dying Alderman is corruption on the part of politicians and the police.  In the novel characters matter-of-factly state that with the exception, perhaps, of the dutiful and conscientious Sir John no one person on the council can be assumed to be above occasionally abusing the public trust. 

Like Winifred Holtby's celebrated novel,
The Dying Alderman examines to problem
of between-the-wars local civic corruption

Also striking is this cynical exchange between Inspector Lott and Chief Constable Race, in which Lott acknowledges, to his superior’s unease, that police may have little interest in actually discovering the “truth”:

“Know anything about this Mrs. Stoole, sir?”

“Nothing beyond what Vorley told me.  She sounds a blood-thirsty hag.”

“May be something behind that.  I mean she may have some reason for hating your Sergeant-major [the porter Hallam, suspected by Vorley of Trant’s murder].”

“I’ll tell Vorley to look into it.”

“He’ll not find anything to discredit her, sir.  She’s his best witness.”

“You’re a cynic, Lott.”

“I know policemen, sir.  I’m one myself.”

Race thought it better to leave this rather unsavoury theme.

This “unsavory theme” is not dwelt upon by the author at length in The Dying Alderman, but he does acknowledge it, which is a far cry from the declaration of crime writer and critic Julian Symons that Golden Age writers “would have thought it undesirable to write about [police misdeeds], because the police were the representatives of established society, and so ought not to be shown behaving badly.” Contrary to Symons’ assertion, meditations on bad behavior on the part of the police are a recurring feature in Henry Wade novels in the 1920s and 1930s.

Here I will close, adding only my usual heartfelt plea that some publisher might consent to reprint the novels of Henry Wade.  Though he has fallen into obscurity with most readers today, Wade is without a doubt one of the major figures of the British Golden Age of detection; and his books would not shame any mystery press.  Readers who praise popular modern crime books by Charles Todd and Jacqueline Winspear or the acclaimed television series Downton Abbey for their depictions of World War One’s impact on British society surely would enjoy the novels and stories of Henry Wade, who experienced the Great War at first hand and wrote about it in his genre fiction with skill, insight and emotive force.

12 comments:

  1. As someone who has become a major fan of Henry Wade, I would also like to chip in with your plea for reprints. I would gladly buy them; Wade is simply a great talent, and I would love to read his books in nice, new paperbacks instead of hardbacks from 1925 that are falling apart. His is a great talent that slipped through the cracks somehow... I'm not at all sure why. You'd think Symons would be enamoured of his stuff...

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  2. Symons, as we have discussed before, may not have read him. I shall read this one as it is not one that has come my way before. One point, though: the clever-dick Scotland Yard man needling the local constabulary is a common theme in GAD and later novels.It's often very unpleasant.

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  3. Patrick,

    I'm so pleased you liked Wade as much as you did, as I mentioned on your blog. I just wish more people had a chance to read him.

    Helen,

    I think the byplay between the police antagonists works well here because Lott's not really sympathetically presented. Lott's needling of the local man is funny but it's also rather cruel--I think the author meant to portray it as such. Lott is not really a sympathetic character!

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  4. The Dying Alderman was my first Wade and I was highly impressed with it - the twist or the clue in the last sentence of the book is absolutely stunning and yet so simple! I have been lucky to get several Wade titles - eagerly looking forward to devour them.

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  5. Hi Curt,

    Thanks for such a kind mention. As you know my exposure to these old Golden Age mystery novels is fairly random, determined firstly by which old Penguins I manage to find, and then by those I randomly choose off the shelf. Many are mediocre, but this haphazard method occasionally directs me to some gems which I otherwise wouldn't have found, and I count The Dying Alderman as one of those (and Green for Danger by Christianna Brand as another). I really enjoyed it, and am always hopeful of coming across his other titles. Penguin seemed to have published another 3 of his novels which I am yet to find.

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  6. Really intriguing post Curtis though I only got through part of it as I have not read the book but perhaps foolishly imagine that one day I will actually manage to get a copy! It really would be nice to find some reasonably priced Wade novels in the UK before the year is out. I do find it fascinating that so many of us in the GAD fan community keep coming back to Julian Symons on the one hand and Barzun & Taylor on the other- it seems incredible that after 40 years fans still seem to be polarised upon 'Bloody Murder' and CoC lines. Personally I tend to agree with Symons a lot more often than I do with B & T but it is the blogosphere that is really making the difference nowadays. Hard to imagine a book coming out that will ever have anything like the same kind of impact.

    Keep up the good work!

    Sergio

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  7. Arun,

    Wade's clueing really is exemplary in this one, isn't it? It's so nice to find someone else besides Christie who can do it so well.

    Karyn,

    I look forward to reading your future reviews. Your comments on such writers as Wade and Cyril Hare frequently had me nodding my head in agreement. You definitely expressed things I had been thinking when reading their books.

    Sergio,

    My problem with Symons here is that he really doesn't get Wade right at all. We can all debate about Humdrums and the crime novel versus the detective story, etc., but the thing is, Wade was actually one of the key British writers in making the transition, like Sayers and Anthony Berkeley Cox. Why Symons lumps him in with the Humdrums I can't see (and no one else who has read Wade can see it either). Symons gives us nothing on which he based his judgment of Wade, so it's very frustrating.

    In my judgment Symons and Barzun/Taylor wrote the most interesting broad studies of the genre. They are often treated, with some good reason, and antithetical to each other, but on the other hand they did hold high opinions of some of the same authors, so their differences can be exaggerated (Symons himself declared they had no common ground whatsoever). Both men like Raymond Chandler, for example. Barzun included Symons' Narrowing Circle is his 100 Crime Fiction Classics. Personally I think both men were too dogmatic and am looking for common ground. But the aesthetic conflict between the two certainly produced a lot of colorful sparks.

    By the way, the review is intended to be spoiler-free. Normally I don't like blogging at length about a mystery plot to leave most of the reading experience to the reader, so I can understand your concern. I am trying hard to get Wade's book back in print and currently am talking to both publishers and family members.

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  8. Very perceptive review of an enjoyable book. Wade was terrific, and much as I admire Symons' judgment, he did get Wade wrong. I've just read The Verdict of You All, published in either 1926 or 27 (sources differ, so I'm not sure) which I think was a really impressive debut.

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  9. Some early reviews compared Wade to Crofts, apparently because his second book has a Croftsian alibi problem; but even that one shows more sophisticated treatment of character than Crofts accomplished.

    Of course, having written a book defending the Humdrums I disagree with Symons on a number of points. But I can see the logic of grouping Freeman Wills Crofts, John Street and J. J. Connington together as a "school." Wade, however, was doing different things. Though he didn't really write light manners novels he, like the Crime Queens Sayers, Allingham and Marsh, was interested in making the puzzle tale more like a mainstream novel. To have missed this, Symond simply can't have had much familiarity with Wade's work (and he never indicates what he has read by Wade).

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  10. My first Wade will be THE DUKE OF YORK'S STEPS sometime at the end of this month. I have a few paperback Harper Perennial reprints around here somewhere, but never read any of those. I had a hard to find copy of HERE COMES A COPPER but foolishly never read any of those stories before I sold it. I should've held onto it as I have now discovered it's an ultra rare book in the edition I had - an American reprint with a DJ. Drat!

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    1. A very well written article and I agree with your assessment of the under-appreciated qualities of Wade. I am in the process of assembling the Wades so I can read them in chronological order and write a short article for Geoff Bradley's CADs later this year. I am two or three short and it's a disgrace that a first rank crime novelist like Wade is OOP while many not fit to oil his typewriter are easily available.

      One of the aspects of his writing I most admire is the subdued way he uses his extensive experience - military, legal, country pursuits, local government etc without obtruding his own opinions to the detriment of plot or pace.

      A small regret is hat he did not make more extensive use of war time settings or his cricket career - a first world war crime novel would have been something worth evading though I'd guess the public appetite might not have been there.

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  11. Scott, thanks for the comment. I fully agree. No disrespect to Charles Todd, for example, but when I see people praising the Todd novels, I wish they could read Wade, who experienced the war first hand and wrote about it with great sensitivity and authority.

    There is movement underfoot to get the books reprinted.

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