Friday 7 May 2010

Forgotten Book - Released for Death

My choice this week for Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books is Released for Death, a novel by Henry Wade which I've seldom seen discussed. It's a period piece, but of considerable interest, both historically and in its own right. I reviewed it for Geoff Bradley's marvellous magazine CADS a few years back. Here is an amended version of that review.

The rich variety of Wade’s work is illustrated by this book, which traces the misadventures of a cat burglar, Toddy Shaw. The early pages of the novel are set in Hadestone Prison, where Shaw is serving a sentence for a crime committed in collaboration with a cleverer and infinitely more dangerous villain, Jacko Carson. He is released earlier than Carson, who by that point is nursing a grudge that threatens, eventually, to cost Toddy Shaw his life. Wade shifts viewpoint regularly, both in the prison scenes and later, and this technique adds depth to the novel, although it is a little frustrating that, having interested the reader in the prison doctor and his wife in the space of a few pages, he never allows either character to return and play any part in subsequent events.

Following his release, Shaw contrives to stay on the straight and narrow – until family misfortunes and renewed acquaintance with Carson push him into resuming his criminal career with disastrous results. When he is charged with a murder he did not commit, he realises too late that he has been set up. The question then is: will he be able to free himself from the noose that Carson has so neatly arranged to fit his neck? As usual, Wade charts the police investigation – and the differing approaches of the members of the team – with calm authority.

An important part is played in the later stages of the novel by the ambitious young PC John Bragg, who appeared in the short story collection Here Comes a Copper, published in the same year as this novel:1938. Wade includes a scene in which Bragg admits to his wife that as part of his duties he is trying to win the affections of a woman who has given Carson an alibi. Arguably, it is a scene superfluous to the story, and it certainly slows the book as it approaches a climax. Yet Wade’s willingness to address the personal implications for a young policeman of his work is striking: he was a writer much more interested in character than most of the ‘humdrum’ school of novelists with which he is sometimes – misleadingly, I tend to think – associated by the critics.

It is a pity that Bragg did not appear in other books, but Wade (like the late lamented Michael Gilbert, of whom he was a forerunner) liked to ring the changes with his detectives as well as with types of story. Wade’s novels tend not to move at lightning speed and that is undeniably the case here - apart from a final scene that feels rushed after the stately pace of what has gone before. But he was much more than a mere plodder. This book may not be a masterpiece, but it presents an interesting and credible picture of a slice of British society in the bleak period immediately before the Second World War. Wade manages to hold the reader’s interest despite largely dispensing with puzzle and mystery. No mean achievement for a writer in the Golden Age.


pattinase (abbott) said...

It must have really felt different at the time when everyone expected a puzzle except in the pulps.

Xavier said...

I read this two years ago and I second your recommendation. This kind of books give the lie to the oft-repeated claim that Golden Age writers were not concerned with "the real world as it really is" and lower classes, and sided systematically with authority (the police's behavior is not quite above reproach there). It is also interesting to see an early and wholly British take on a theme which went to become a staple of hardboiled/noir fiction. My only quibble would be about the casual racism in the presentation of the villain. Not enough to fully spoil the enjoyment, but still bothersome.

Evan Lewis said...

You continue to amaze me, Martin, with these Golden Agers I've neglected.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Sounds interesting, Martin! I like the idea of the book starting out in a prison and following a cat burglar. Very different. I'd be interested in seeing these frequent POV shifts done well, too.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. I do feel Wade deserves to be remembered. Xavier, glad you like this book too.

vegetableduck said...

Martin, as you would know, I wasn't personally so crazy about this one, but I think it's really quite notable for the subjects it deals with in the period when it appeared. As you and Xavier indicate, it up-ends the conventional view of the Symons-Watson school about what Golden age writers were trying to do. And there's no question but that the "Humdrum" label, as defined by Symons himself, is an absurdity as applied to Wade. I respect a lot of Symons' work, but his declaration of Wade as "humdrum" unconcerned with character and theme is terribly unfair, a real slip on his part.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, I agree it was a bad slip. A great critic, Symons, but we all make mistakes.