An article on the enjoyable detective-story blog The Passing Tramp had this (and more) to say about Henry Wade:
among English Golden Age crime writers no one of whom I am aware wrote more seriously and insightfully about the Great War than Wade.
I had never read any Wade, so thought I would take a look at his first novel, The Verdict of You All (1926). I’m going to write about the book now, because I’m intrigued by its manipulation of the reader’s sympathies, and find its treatment of an ex-soldier interesting. But of course there is a problem with criticism of detective puzzle novels. I shall have to expose some secrets. So, if you’ve not read the book, please be content for the moment with Rose Macaulay’s accurate description of it:
A very competent, adequate, conscientiously set and carefully solved problem; the clues are well laid down and well picked up, the tracks well made and skilfully uncovered… In ‘The Verdict of You All’ there are really no holes to pick; it is an English murder, and does our country credit.
If you already know the book, or if you don’t mind spoilers, then keep reading.
Geoffrey Hastings ( private secretary to Sir John Smethurst, a financier, and engaged to Smethurst’s daughter) is introduced to us as a typical twenties hero:
a tall, well-built man of some thirty-five years of age, with greying hair and set mouth that came so prematurely to many young men who passed through the crucible of war, but the laughing happy eyes of a boy.
Stereotypically in twenties fiction the ex-soldier is contrasted with the alien profiteering businessman. In this book we are shown Samuel McCorquodale, Smethurst’s rival financier, through Hastings’ eyes:
Geoffrey Hastings disliked Mr McCorquodale more than a little, and for more reasons than one. In the first place his name was Samuel, and in the second his name was McCorquodale, and Geoffrey, who loved Scotland as much as he hated Palestine, was infuriated by the unnatural union.
When he sees McCorquodale, Hastings’ toes twitch with the desire to kick him.
Smethurst is murdered, and there is a good array of suspects, but the dogged police are divided in their suspicions. Is the killer Hastings or McCorquodale? Geoffrey Hastings has an alibi that is possibly shaky, and his business dealings begin to look suspicious. He is put on trial, and the circumstantial evidence is so stacked against him that he looks certain to be convicted – until a last-minute revelation of an alibi – that he was spending the night with a woman not his fiancée.
Hastings is acquitted – but then the detectives discover the truth. Everything had been a sham. He had indeed murdered Smethurst, cleverly faking details to confuse the police about the time of death. He had been thoroughly disloyal, both to Smethurst and his fiancée, and his financial dealings were dishonest. He had even contrived a deliberately shaky alibi, so that it did not seem too pat. The last-minute declaration of an alibi by a woman who thereby ruined her own reputation had been planned well in advance. Yet by the laws of double jeopardy he was safe from further prosecution.
The final chapter is his letter, written from some unknown foreign destination, explaining to the police the precise details of his crime. What Wade has done is to lure the unsuspecting reader of 1926 with a conventional stereotype of the ex-soldier in a difficult post-war world, and then overturning it. By the end of the book we have been reminded that soldiers are not just people who stand around being noble. Hastings, who keeps a vicious life-preserver hanging among the trench souvenirs on his wall, has shown that he possesses war-winning qualities – ruthlessness, calmness under pressure, the ability to win by subterfuge.
During the early-to-mid 1920s, the age of war memorials and regimental histories, representations of soldiers that differed from the heroic ideal can be found in literary novels like Wilfrid Ewart’s Way of Revelation, but in popular fiction the noble stereotype was the norm. It is interesting, therefore, to see this stereotype so subverted in a detective story. But then the puzzle story is a ruthless and subversive genre. Whenever it offers an apparently comforting picture of respectable England, you can bet that seething passions and discontents will have been uncovered by the end of the book.
Was Wade being deliberately subversive, or just thinking how he could manipulate his readers’ perceptions to create a clever puzzle? He had been a soldier (D.S.O. and Croix de Guerre) and High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, so had some knowledge of the world. He must have been aware that Remembrance Day pieties were not the whole story of the War, and this awareness is expressed in his novel. I shall search out some of his others. .