Monday, September 22, 2014

Henry Wade's Heir Presumptive

Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet CVO DSO (1887-1969) wrote detective novels using the pseudonym Henry Wade. And very very good detective novels they were too. Wade is arguably one of the most underrated of all writers of the golden age of detective fiction.

Wade’s first detective novel was published in 1926 and his last in 1957. Heir Presumptive appeared in 1935 and it’s not only superb in quality but also daring in conception.

At first it gives the impression that it’s yet another inverted detective novel, a sub-genre that I’m not overly fond of. If you happen to share my lack of enthusiasm for this type of story don’t despair - Wade has some very clever and original tricks up his sleeve and he uses this format in a very individualistic way.

Eustace Hendel is rather distantly related to the very wealthy Baron Barradys. So distantly related that he has rarely given the matter much thought and he is only very vaguely acquainted with the senior line of the Hendel family. When he hears of the sudden deaths of two members of the family he is at first only mildly interested. This lack of familiarity notwithstanding he is persuaded to attend the funerals. After giving the matter some thought it has occurred to him that these two unexpected deaths have removed the two immediate heirs to both the title and the family fortune. He had previously regarded his chances of succeeding to the title and the fortune to be so remote as to be not worth serious consideration. That has now changed somewhat. In fact there are now only two members of the family between him and the succession. And one of those two, Desmond Hendel, is an invalid who is not expected to live very long. Desmond’s father David is a widower so perhaps Eustace has a chance after all.

This comes at a very opportune time. Eustace had trained as a doctor but gave up his practice when he inherited a fortune from a wealthy woman. He has managed to dissipate that fortune by following his favourite hobbies - gambling, fast cars, actresses and drink. Eustace is very close to being penniless. Worse, he is seriously in debt to a money lender. If David were to meet with an accident all Eustace’s problems would be solved.

Eustace is not really such a bad fellow, not the sort who would normally contemplate murder, but he really is in desperate financial straits. In such circumstances murder starts to look like a rather attractive proposition. The more he thinks about it the more it seems like rotten luck that a fortune should pass to David when he is much more seriously in need of the money.

This all sounds rather like the kinds of novels that Francis Iles had made a big splash with in the early 30s - inverted detective stories with a strong psychological bent. Wade is however attempting something rather different with Heir Presumptive - a blending of the inverted detective story with the classic golden age detective story. In fact the inverted detective story angle can almost be said to be a red herring. Wade also combines the psychological angle, with a strong focus on Eustace’s thought processes and with a story told entirely from his point of view (although told in the third person), with the more conventional motivations of golden age detective fiction.

Wade’s plotting is remarkably skillful. He pulls off a spectacular feat of misdirection with the sure touch of an expert conjuror. Even more impressively the misdirection is not only practised on the reader but on his protagonist as well.

The potential disadvantage of a story told entirely from the point of view of a murderer is that a murderer makes a less than sympathetic protagonist. Wade handles this difficulty skillfully. There’s not a great deal to admire in Eustace Hendel but we can’t help feeling vaguely sorry for him as his schemes never quite work out as he’d hoped. We’re appalled by his selfishness but he’s a hapless victim of his own delusions rather than a monster, although of course a person driven entirely by self-interest and self-delusion does become monstrous in practice.

Heir Presumptive is much more interesting and much more satisfying than the Francis Iles inverted mysteries although it has to be emphasised that Wade’s novel differs from the Iles books in significant ways.

A fascinating novel by a writer who deserves a lot more recognition than he gets. Highly recommended.

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