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August 05, 2011

Heir Presumptive

I find myself once again puzzled over why Henry Wade should be considered one of The Humdrums. I can understand why someone like John Rhode or Freeman Wills Crofts would be considered as part of the group, but for the life of me I don’t see that in Henry Wade (pseudonym of Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher). I’ve just finished reading his book Heir Presumptive, and it is undoubtedly the best inverted murder mystery I’ve ever read. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it (ahem) Literary Art.

Heir Presumptive was published in 1935, though the edition I found in the university’s library was a reprint from 1937. It comes complete with a family tree and a map of Captain David Hendel’s deer forest, folded in an interesting way at the front of the book and the back. These come in very useful, particularly the family tree: the family history is a complex one, and at first, I found myself looking at the family tree quite often to see who was related to whom.

But I didn’t end up using the family tree for long, as Wade really makes sure you get to know the characters. The main character is Eustace Hendel— once a doctor, he married a rich widow who promptly died and left his a fortune, whereupon he chucked the practice and has lived his life luxuriously. Years later, however, the fortune has been squandered and Eustace finds his standard of living steadily dropping. He’s forced to live “by his wits”, playing poker games with impressionable young, well-to-do men, and squeezing finances out of them that way (with some strategic losses, of course).

All this changes when distant relatives, Howard Hendel and his son, Harold, die in a tragic swimming accident. Eustace comes down to the funeral, and while talking with a lawyer, he learns that there are only two people standing in the way of his inheriting a baronetcy and a fortune— Captain David Hendel and his son, Desmond. Slowly, but surely, a plan of murder evolves in his head, as he determines to get rid of his relatives and inherit.

We see all the events from Eustace’s point of view, and I have a hard time remembering the last times I read of a main character this fascinating. There are definite parallels to Macbeth: he is a weak man who is pushed into murder by a woman with a far stronger personality. The woman in this case is Jill, his current companion and former actress, who has let Eustace know that if he can’t find a regular income, she will return to the stage— and that means a change of companion. Eustace loves Jill and can’t bear the thought of losing her. He confides in her what he’s learned about his position, and she is the one who tells him to “screw your courage to the sticking place” and suggests doing away with the competition. Though the idea has already entered Eustace’s mind, it is Jill who first phrases it bluntly, and she more or less prods him into the crime.

Eustace’s tragedy is that he falls in love with the wrong sort of woman—Jill is domineering, manipulative, and amoral. He fails to notice kindness when it is shown to him; he is bitter that his family resents him, or are arrogant or self-righteous. He wants to be loved but doesn’t know how to set about achieving that.  He equates the inheritance with happiness and foolishly places all his eggs in that basket, ultimately resorting to murder.

Eustace justifies his actions to himself, but the truth is, Captain David Hendel is not a very likeable sort: he is pompous, rather self-absorbed, and not very kind. Somehow, Eustace manages to get an invitation to David’s deer forest for a stag hunt. He decides that David will die accidentally during the hunt, and the stag hunt scenes are marvellous. They are suspenseful and really well-written, and Wade does a good job withholding from the reader just what kind of accident Eustace is planning.

But these characters are complex: David is not a one-note character. We see him from Eustace’s point of view, of course, and so it is probably biased, but we see glimpses of a genial, good sort. He’s downright mean when Eustace practically bungles the hunt, but he’s quite decent when, a few days later, Eustace gets his target, clapping him on the back and congratulating him. One of the characters, Blanche Hendel (widow of the recently deceased Howard), remarks: “He loved Glenellich; it was the one place where he seemed to be natural; I don’t want to seem to criticize my husband’s family, but they were rather overbearing in some ways, both Howard and David. I never saw their father, but of course old Lord Barradys is too. Up here David seemed to drop all that.” To which “Eustace thought that that was not his impression, but he was prepared to admit that he had not seen David under the most favourable circumstances.”

But the true monstrosity begins after David dies and Eustace must suffer through the inquiries. He decides that he must do away with Desmond, David’s son, and the prospect is horrifying. Eustace doesn’t want to kill Desmond— he is a very sick young man who will die soon anyhow, but he is charming and enjoys company. I won’t say what happens next, though the irony is brilliant and what results is a genuinely fascinating fusion between the inverted murder mystery and the fair-play detective story. Although I did predict the ending, the twist still feels jaw-dropping, as you see it through the eyes of Eustace. And then the final scenes are just brilliant.

In fact, Heir Presumptive has got to be one of the greatest mysteries ever written. It’s a successful inverted murder story and told brilliantly through the main character. The characters are complex and you really feel you get to know them. (There’s even a really neat touch at the inquest, when the Home Office Analyst, Sir Hulbert Lemuel, who appeared in No Friendly Drop, appears in his official capacity as a witness at an inquest.) There are suspenseful scenes, and the plot twists and turns so much you feel you’ve been taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride. There is real horror here— the ordeal of the investigations feels exhausting. The finale is just brilliant. I really can’t think of anything the book does wrong—I would even bestow the honour of calling it “literary art”.

So why is Henry Wade is lumped together with The Humdrums? In just two books, he’s shown great skill with both clues and character. This book is the best inverted mystery I’ve ever read. Curt Evans offers an interesting take on the newly-formed GAD group on facebook: “Well, Julian Symons said he was and people have been repeating what Symons has said for forty years. In all likelhood, not one of the people saying this has ever read Henry Wade. Symons himself gives no indication he actually read him. He added him to the Humdrum list in the second edition of Bloody Murder after Barzun and Taylor highly praised him in A Catalogue of Crime. I really think Symons just assumed Wade was the same as Street, another author over which ACOC went gaga.”

Julian Symons strikes again!

Overall, Heir Presumptive is a brilliant read and I highly recommend it. In its honour, I will add the map from the back of the book to the background image of the blog later today. Since things really can’t get much better than this, I will take the advice I gave to such works as The Magic Casket and The Merry Hippo: I will end the proceedings on a high note. This marks the official end of this series of reviews examining the Crime Kings: male authors who wrote in the Golden Age and who are too often overlooked in favour of their female counterparts. But believe me: we haven’t seen the last of the Crime Kings or Henry Wade, a new favourite of mine, on this blog.