Heir Presumptive (Henry Wade)

By Henry Wade

First published: UK, Constable, 1935

Blurb (UK)

Wade - Heir Presumptive
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Eustace Hendel, head of the younger branch of a rich and titled family, suddenly realises that, as the result of a holiday accident, the question of the succession to entailed estates holds something more than academic interest for him.


Eustace is in severe financial difficulties, and in love; all his problems would be solved were he himself heir-presumptive to old Lord Barradys.  Other members of the elder branch remain, but…accidents do happen.

For the solution of such a problem, practical experience of medicine and surgery is a detailed asset, but (as Eustace Hendel found) something more than a little legal knowledge is advisable.

My review

Surely one of the best crime novels ever written. The reader sees the hunt from the other side—sees the systematic extermination of a series of heirs through the eyes of the oddly sympathetic murderer, Eustace Hendel, driven to commit his crimes by a love of money, and an over-riding woman.  Like Macbeth, he is weak and opportunistic, rather than deliberately malevolent. Despite a reference to the “inferiority complex” on p. 130, it is heartening to see that “psychology” is avoided, and that the murderer has a genuine motive: “Succession to the peerage and estates! How magnificent it sounded. It meant Jill and comfort and money to play with and position—the House of Lords!”

Eustace kills his cousin David during a most suspenseful deer-stalk in Scotland.  David is distinctly unlikeable (or are we merely seeing him from Eustace’s biased point-of-view?), but Eustace’s second victim, his son Desmond, is sympathetic, forcing Eustace to attempt to justify the act: “After all, he had got to die before very long anyhow and it would really be a kindness to put him out quietly and quickly now; brae and cheerful as he was, life could be no great pleasure to him. Yes, really a kindness; nothing to regret at all.” Eustace that is cruel, is yet merciful. In the end, Eustace doesn’t have to murder Desmond (a relief, because “he would have given anything to turn away from it, but the alternative was ruin”).  SPOILER Someone else gets there before him. This neatly combines the attractions of the inverted story with those of the detective story proper.  The book ends with a brilliant and powerful twist.

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 16th November 1935):

Heir Presumptive also carries a tendentious dust cover, but in compensation is sub-titled “a murder story”, which is exactly what it is.  These “Malice Aforethought” books can be extremely dull; but those who read The Verdict of You All know that Mr. Wade can be trusted to spring a surprise on anyone who dares to expect the obvious from him.  Nobody must be put off by the misleading naïveté of the opening chapters in Heir Presumptive, wherein the villain Eustace Hendel decides to kill off all the Hendels who stand between him and a title plus a fortune.  The neatness of the finish is delightful; and half-way through the book there comes a passage of such grisly virtuosity in a Highland deer-forest that when I reached it I had to put the book down and look away from the pages as I actually felt rather faint.


Observer (Torquemada, 17th November 1935):


To hunt the stag, even if only with the aid of an excellent map, in Captain David Hendel’s deer-forest is also to take part in quite the best murder story Mr. Wade has yet written.  Frankly, in the days of The Duke of York’s Steps and, later and especially, in the short-story days of Policeman’s Lot, it was with me a question of wade through; now it is a question of wade in.  The hero of Heir Presumptive is most cleverly involved in two murders, and our interest is progressively tautened as two questions—did Eustace kill the two interlopers, and was he the true heir?—slowly answer themselves.


Times Literary Supplement (23rd November 1935):

This is aptly described on the title-page as a murder story.  It is concerned with two murders in the full sense of the word, and with two deaths which, though not murders in law, were due to the guilty contrivance of the villain.  These events were due to the facts that the first Lord Barradys left a great number of descendants, that the family settlements were peculiar, and that the family contained a high average of persons with unusual notions of morality.  The plot is ingenious.  The narrative is well handled.  And the description of a deer stalk, in the course of which one murder is committed, is excellent.  Probably the law is accurate.

Those who know Mr. Wade’s work will expect that the whole affair is somewhat grim, and they will not be disappointed.  It is always difficult, and perhaps unsafe, to generalise about the mental processes of a murderer.  But the two specimens here displayed are almost too cynical and callous to be plausible.