Thursday, 10 January 2008

Harcourt and Henry Wade

Just when I thought I’d finished my set of essays for the Harcourt Encyclopaedia, the phone went and the editor, Barry Forshaw, asked me to write something about Henry Wade. It’s a pleasure to do a short piece, because if there is one Golden Age British writer who deserves to be better known, in my opinion it is Henry Wade.

‘Henry Wade’ was the name under which Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher wrote varied, thoughtful and entertaining crime fiction for thirty years. His career stretched from the 1920s to the late 1950s, when psychological suspense was coming to the fore. He played an important part in the development of the genre, especially but not only in the credible portrayal of the business of detection, and the ordinary people whose lives are changed by crime. I am really not sure why his gifts have long been under-estimated by commentators, who are apt to bracket him with the so-called ‘humdrum’ writers such as John Rhode.

Aubrey-Fletcher had a distinguished military career during the First World War, and several of the Henry Wade novels reflect his understanding of the impact that conflict had on those who lived through it. The Dying Alderman (1930) is a capable whodunit with neat use of a ‘dying message’ clue, but Mist on the Saltings (1933) is even more effective; a study in character that was ahead of its time. The novel also benefited from an evocative setting on the East Anglian coast. Released for Death (1938) presents a sympathetic picture of a criminal exploited after leaving jail by a career villain.

Lonely Magdalen (1940) is even better, offering a realistic yet gripping account of an investigation into the apparently commonplace murder of a prostitute whose body is found on Hampstead Heath. The book, structurally very accomplished, is written in three sections; the central part of the book details the dead woman’s misadventures in her younger days before the police inquiry resumes following her identification. This novel, like many of Wade’s best, features Inspector John Poole, a shrewd and sympathetic Oxford-educated detective whose other cases include a very enjoyable ‘inverted mystery’, Too Soon to Die (1954.)

I’m not suggesting that everything he wrote was a masterpiece. But many of them still read well today. His work bridged the gap between the detective novel as game and the crime novel focusing on character. Henry Wade also had a far better understanding of police procedure than most of his contemporaries - and he described it well.


Xavier said...

I am really not sure why his gifts have long been under-estimated by commentators, who are apt to bracket him with the so-called ‘humdrum’ writers such as John Rhode.

Symons quickly dismissed both Wade and Rhode in Bloody Murder as he "reviews" Barzun's and Taylor's Catalog of Crime. He seemed really upset that someone as articulated as Barzun might have divergent opinions regarding what a good mystery novel is.

Martin Edwards said...

Xavier, my guess is that not many of the major critics, including Symons, read much of Wade. I would have thought that Wade at his best ought greatly to have appealed to Symons. I can't even persuade those excellent contemporary critics and Golden Age fans Tom and Enid Schantz that Wade is a class act. But there is a very good entry about him in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Xavier said...

Have you read "Constable, Guard Thyself"? It is one I have been seeking for years: probably the only locked-room mystery ever set in a police station with, as the title suggests, a policeman as the victim. Wade sure deserves to be rediscovered.

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, I've read it and I reviewed it for CADS a while back. It's a very decent story, even though the identity of the culprit is not too difficult to guess, and shows Wade's knowledge of how the police operated in the 1930s. It's not as brilliant as Lonely Magdalen, but it is still good. Which Wade is your favourite?

Anonymous said...

1. No Friendly Drop
2. The Dying Alderman
3. Heir Presumptive
4. The High Sheriff
5. Mist on the Saltings
6. A Dying Fall

I liked Lonely Magdalen, though I tend to dislike those long, middle background sections. You're right about the use of police proceudure, it's far more sophisticated than most authors of the era.

What is the problem the Schantzes have with him? Is it their general bias in favor of "witty" (madcap, even--did the world really need every Constance Little reprinted?) female writers? It's frustrating, because in some of his books I feel Wade is closer in tone to James and Rendell than are the Crime Queens.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, I agree that there is something quite modern about Henry Wade (at his best) and it remains a mystery to me that his name is not better known.

Anonymous said...

Martin, I have just quoted you on Mist on the Saltings in my Henry Wade chapter (page 47), hope this is okay. I reread Lonely Magdalen and upgraded it. I think his best detective novels are The Dying Alderman, No Friendly Drop, Constable, Guard Thyself! (Xavier's point about this being a "locked room" mystery struck me on rereading--perhaps one as practiced by Chesterton?), Lonely Magdalen, Diplomat's Folly (odd choice?) and A Dying Fall. I also value Mist and Heir Presumptive highly, though I would put those more in the "crime novel" category. His first three all have good points, but have as well "period faults," as they say.

Glad you gave him notice here, he is deserving of all he can get.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, of course the quote is okay. I look forward to seeing this book - can you tell me more about it?