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.
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.
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.