Mist on the Saltings (Henry Wade)

By Henry Wade

First published: UK, Constable, 1933

Blurb (UK)

Wade - Mist on the Saltings
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

MIST ON THE SALTINGS shows an attempt to react from the extreme complexity and improbability to which modern detective stories increasingly tend, and to endeavour to combine a murder and its unravelling with a piece of straight fiction.

In consequence, the corpse in Mist on the Saltings, instead of appearing according to rule in chapter one or two, does not do so until chapter thirteen, and is a more life-like corpse than usual, because the author has had an opportunity of developing its character in the earlier part of the book.

My review

Wade writes well, but this is drab.  The setting is a Norfolk coastal village, whose bleak landscape echoes the characters’ gloom and soulless lust.  The socio-economic picture of interwar Britain, the classic situation of adultery, suspicion and jealousy are worthy of a straight novel. The murder of the adulterous novelist comes late, with the detection an after-thought, revisiting old ground, and the murderer’s identity is handed to the police on a platter.

The book must have influenced Nicholas Blake’s Beast Must Die.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (26th October 1933):

Once again, and with his customary skill, Mr. Henry Wade presents a really intelligent and satisfying problem in this account of the death of a novelist, whose body was found in a mud-hole off the Norfolk coast.  But, unlike his earlier novels, Mr. Wade’s latest is something more than a brilliant exercise in detection.  Indeed, Dallas Fiennes’s body is not found until the thirteenth chapter, even though it is fairly obvious that he is destined to be the victim.  The first part of the book is an attempt, and a very successful one, to restore to the detective novel the background of psychology and atmosphere, which the masters of the craft have tended to sacrifice in favour of pure complexity.  In these chapters the reader is introduced to solid and convincing characters—the penurious painter and his wife, the local fishermen and a scattering of “foreigners” in the country sense of the word.  Further, Mr. Wade describes with unusual feeling the lonely stretch of coast, the muddy channels, the stillness, broken only by the cry of gulls, of the scene where the crime is committed.  But above all he succeeds in justifying the various motives for it by a careful analysis of the thoughts and emotions of his protagonists.


Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 5th November 1933):

To combine the novel of mystery with the novel of manners was the great achievement of English writers in the past, and is increasingly their ambition to-day.  After the divorce of plot from psychology had been made absolute in the first quarter of the century, attempts at reconciliation began to be made from both sides, but the difficulties were, and still are, acute.

Both parties to the union had become set in their habits, and the detective story in particular had a polished and heartless mechanism upon which all genuine feeling was a mere intrusion.  Either the reality of the passions made the detective business look cheap, or the austerity of the detective interest made the passions look tawdry.  No one has as yet perfectly resolved the problem.

In Mist on the Saltings, Mr. Henry Wade has made the attempt.  In the first half, he deals with the social strains and stresses that bring a crime about; in the second, he detects the criminal.

The purely detective part of such a book is necessarily simpler and more restricted in range than in the tale that is all puzzle.  The far-fetched surprise ending is impossible where motive and character are taken seriously.  Into the solution of the problem, as thus limited, Mr. Wade has put all the interest and suspense of which it is capable.  Where he is less happy is in his presentation of the emotional elements in the mixture.  He is too essentially amiable to handle his gang of warped and unpleasant personalities, and at times he over-tunes their brutalities to howling-pitch.  And when it comes to depicting sexual passion, he plans a seduction like Napoleon—and executes it like the famous Duke of York.

These incongruous pruderies land him in bathos and weaken the book.  Yet where he has not tried to force the note, his characterisation is quite excellent: the sullen matrimonial rages of the artist-husband are convincingly true to life, and his incidental sketches of policemen and rustics are outlined with all his usual quiet charm of style; the fog-laden dreariness of the Saltings is conveyed with a finely subdued richness of colour.  This is an interesting experiment which, with a little more firmness in the handling, might have been a memorable book.