#262: The Duke of York’s Steps (1929) by Henry Wade

Duke of York's StepsLast week, I was moved to reflect upon the end of the archetypal Golden Age detective novel, and this week I’m moved to reflect on its beginning.  The essential ludic air at the heart of the best of the genre is not quite there in The Duke of York’s Steps, but one can feel the inalienable ingredients of the form straggling into line to give shape to a story that retains fidelity to a type of plot that, at this stage, was understood if not quite mastered.  If anything, the mystery feels almost over-subtle — like Antidote to Venom, it seems a trifle unlikely that such a set of circumstances as these would come to warrant criminal investigation — and so approximately the first quarter is spent trying to manufacture the necessary traction for the detection to begin in earnest.

There is in that first quarter, though, enough to establish Wade as someone doing far more than simply going through the motions.  Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher — to give him his full name — had served in the First World War before becoming a writer, and having his characters doff their caps to the newly-built cenotaph on Whitehall may seem like obsessive obsequiousness until one reflects:

What a wonderful sight it must be for those million dead Britons to look down — if they could look down — upon the dense black and white sea of their comrades and descendants, motionless and silent in memory of them. … Quaint in a way, when you thought of some of the million whose memory they were hallowing — scoundrels, a lot of them, cowards a good many, and the great bulk only fighting and dying because they had to.

Elsewhere, the investigation into the death of the financier Sir Garth Fratten only really starts because a Scotland Yard officer with the means to greenlight such things finds his grieving daughter attractive and wishes to please (and hopefully see more of) her.  Wade has a good balance of this contrast of the general and the personal — of the essential turpitude behind a great many good acts — and is able to switch between the two with surprising ease.  The result is a picture of a society held in the thrall of finance giants as much as are the young men who populate it enraptured by the starlets they clamour round stage doors during show intervals — “many of them bare-headed” — hoping for a note or a word of encouragement.  No doubt, the world on Wade’s pages is populated from the ground all the way up by moments of fractious insight such as these.

Dual threads see newly-promoted Inspector John Poole and the murdered man’s daughter Inez pursuing their own ends in seeking out the truth, the former practically given an attack of the yips by the latter and allowing here a free rein he doesn’t know she’s using.  It’s interesting that this ends up effectively as a police procedural: Poole does the paperwork, and Inez has the Inspector French-esque doggedness to track a clue down to its final, final ends (interestingly, one parenthetical aside reveals an admiration for French as a fictional creation).  In a way, though, this brought to my mind the early work of Rupert Penny, with its capable, human policeman working away at a problem and able to construe the connections that come out of each action and interaction.

It also recalls Penny’s first three books in that — while admirably constructed along very entertaining lines — there’s no key moment of “Aha! That’s how you tricked me!” when the answers are reached.  There’s a moment late on which almost falls into this category, but in truth it doesn’t change a great deal and is simply an example of expectations being led astray…a nice touch, but nothing revelatory.  This is very much in ‘professional policeman’ category of GAD, which always felt to me like a more straight-laced cousin of the free-for-all puzzle of the genius amateur — Poole’s senior officer even warns against the invitation of amateur sleuths into Scotland Yard cases — and it fulfills this remit admirably.

34179532So, as a first exposure to Henry Wade, this is a promising start; it was only his third novel, and feels slightly lacking in confidence, but the callowness of John Poole works well here as a sort of meta-examination of detective plotting: the sleuth as new to this as the author.  While out of print in traditional for, a great deal — possibly all — of Wade’s books are available in ebook from The Murder Room, and although it’s taken me a long time to get to this, I’m now eager to explore further.  He may not yet be master of all he assays, but there is humour and guile enough here to make this a far from onerous reading experience.  I shall in due course — ahem — Wade deeper…

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

See also:

Patrick @ At the Scene of the Crime: This is a complex mystery and Inspector Poole’s investigations are very reminiscent of a police procedural. He must investigate every layer of the case, follow up the most unlikely leads. … And Poole isn’t on the case 24/7 like some inhuman detection machine — he takes a weekend off, for instance, and this only does him a world of good when he returns to the case. Plenty of complications arise throughout the investigation, and the way the mystery is slowly unravelled is quite simply marvellous.

~

I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Chandelier/Candle/Etc (assuming that ‘Etc’ extends to other forms of lighting…).

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Wilders Walk Away because both books are set (or at least begin) in the month of October.

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27 thoughts on “#262: The Duke of York’s Steps (1929) by Henry Wade

  1. You’ll be in for a surprise when you get to Heir Presumptive. Definitely not a conventional GAD novel. And one of the few books that almost makes the inverted detective story idea seem worthwhile, mostly because Wade doesn’t adhere to the rules of that sub-genre either.

    Wade was one of the greats, right up there with Christie and Carr.

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    • Well, this is encouraging news. I do also have Heir Presumptive, but thought I’d do the four I possess now in publication order; that is the fourth, so I will hopefully have a good sense of him as an author my then. Here’s hoping I come to share your high opinion of him 🙂

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        • I think I need to read a bit more of Wade before talking to someone who knows as much about this as Curtis inevitably will! But thanks, I’ll check out what he’s written at his blog for some pointers.

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        • Heir Presumptive is my only exposure to Wade and agree with D that even for an inverted detective story it is an unconventional mystery, but the downside is that it made the murderer rather obvious. As I remember it, the culprit’s scheme is rather conventional and therefore stood out against the rest of the story.

          That being said, I should probably dig out that one other Wade title residing on the big pile.

          PS: looking forward to what you make of Stacey Bishop’s Death in the Dark.

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        • I’m quite excited for Death in the Dark, I’ll be honest. I’d not even heard of it before LRI republished it, but it sounds weird enough that it might be the exact kind of thing I’m looking for.

          Incidentally, if all goes well (that is, I finish reading it in time), I should have a review for you on Saturday of another attempt to find you a modern impossible crime…

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  2. Never read a Wade book at all,m or know much about him but ‘professional policeman’ category of GAD, which always felt to me like a more straight-laced cousin of the free-for-all puzzle of the genius amateur’ is a really nice description. Do you know if much of his work is like this, or just this first one?

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    • Absolutely no idea what to expect — I know he wrote at least one impossibility (Constable, Guard Thyself!) and one inverted mystery (Heir Presumptive) but past that I have no idea how he stack up. On this evidence, I’m looking forward to reading more, but that doesn’t really count for anything in terms of your actual query!

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  3. Glad your first read was mostly a positive one. I think I had a similar reading experience when reading The Verdict of You All. However, as I have probably said before, Wade is a very versatile writer and he uses many different writing styles and plot types, beyond the police procedural form. I think you’ll enjoy Heir Presumptive when you get to it. what are the other two titles you have?

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    • The two others are (I think) Mist on the Saltings and The Hanging Captain; I would hope he diversifies on this, not because it’s poor but because there’s so much promise here. If that results in a range of styles and approaches, well, more’s the better. And since there are about 19 other books, there’s plenty of scope for him to try out a few things. I get more excited about these books the more I hear…!

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  4. I have The Hanging Captain and New Graves at Great Norne sitting on the shelf. The only one I’ve read is The Dying Alderman, which I liked – it has three detectives and a dying message- but, for some reason, never reviewed. There’s a whole aspect of Duke that Curtis covers in his book on Wade that is fascinating, but I learned to my peril that one must read the books before reading about them here; there are many spoilers.

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    • Reading Curtis’ book on John Street, etc, I was hugely impressed by the sheer depth of the spoilers and analysis gone into. It’s all fairly declared and indicated in the text, but this did mean that I need to go away and read a lot more of the novels by the authors featured in order to get the most out of his detailed look at their works. That’s something of a long-term project now…!

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    • The four I have are the Perennial paperback versions, and I got them at a very good price — so clearly someone’s being very generous. Great Norne sounds, ahem, great; looks like I have some ebooks to be purchasing in my future…

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  5. Two things in your review I thought really hit the nail on the head — one is the phrase, “the essential ludic air”, which I can already tell is going to occupy my mind for a while ;-). The other is something where I agree with you that “the first quarter is spent trying to manufacture the necessary traction for the detection to begin in earnest”, but you’ve phrased it much more accurately than I did in the above-noted review. Yes, he’s slow getting off the mark, but what you’ve identified is that that’s necessary for the detection to really make sense and be effective. I just experienced it as a slow, slow start.

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  6. “having his characters doff their caps to the newly-built cenotaph on Whitehall may seem like obsessive obsequiousness…”
    After the cenotaph was first built it was customary for men to doff their hats when they passed it. See https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/raising-hats/ for a discussion.

    As an admirer of crime fiction rather than detective stories, I find my problem with The Duke of York’s Steps is that the killer’s motives are much more interesting than finding the solution to the crime and I’d like him to have looked at them more closely. I had the same feeling with the other books by Wade that I’ve read. You might say that as far as I’m concerned the only thing wrong with Wade’s books is the kind of books they are!

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    • Oh, yeah, I have no doubt it was customary — hence the may seem in the above. I also know that people will likely be aware of Aubrey-Fletcher’s war service, and so was highlighting the fact that he views it from both sides: it’s not mere obsequiousness on his part, and so therefore more likely a reflection of the attitudes of the time. Thanks for confirming this, though; I don’t remember reading about it in any other book from this era, but then I also don’t think I’ve read much lately from the late 1920s.

      As for the motive…it’s difficult to get away from the fact that any real depth of motive is typically discarded in detective fiction. Sure, links between apparently disparate facts are established, but once the necessary conclusion is reached, the motive tends to get accepted and we move on. I think this might be why I’m so bad at remembering motives (I finished this book yesterday morning, and still had to think to remember what the motive actually was!). The dwelling on cause is undoubtedly more of a conceit of the crime novel, you’re right, and becomes a far greater aspect of plotting as this genre develops away from detection and morphs into a rather more societally-focussed undertaking.

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  7. This was the second novel by Henry Wade I read, the first being ‘Constable, Guard Thyself’. I wasn’t overly impressed by either, especially in terms of the clue-ing and the puzzle. I gather from reviews that ‘Hanging Captain’ and ‘Dying Alderman’ are the two titles that come close to the Golden Age puzzle…

    I’m keen to hear what you have to say about Stacey Bishop’s novel. Having read a few luke-warm reviews, I was expecting worse – but enjoyed it when I finally got down to reading it. 🙂

    P.S. Thanks for the tweets about ‘Madman’s Room’ and ‘Howling Beast’. I didn’t know there was another Halter translation in the pipeline – and so rejoiced and bought ‘Madman’s Room’ immediately. Do you happen to know if ‘House that Kills’ will get an electronic release too?

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    • This certainly doesn’t fall into the typical puzzle format, which is something I tried to flag up at the top of the review: don’t go in looking for a formal puzzle, because this ain’t that (the comparison with Wilders Walk Away from last week is actually weirdly fitting in this regard…).

      The Bishop I’m very intrigued about; as I’ve said elsewhere, I didn’t even know it existed until LRI announced its publication, but speaking at the Bodies from the Library conference to one of the people who proof-read it I’m increasingly intrigued. Apparently there are poems 😀

      And as for Vindry…well, we wait and hope that THTK will get and Kindle release and that Le Double Alibi (apparently something of a masterpiece) and A Travers les Murailles will appear in English…time will tell…!

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