Policeman’s Lot (Henry Wade)

By Henry Wade

First published: UK, Constable, 1933

Blurb (UK)

These are detective stories!  “Henry Wade is in the master class”!

My review

Wade - Policeman's Lot.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

A baker’s dozen of stories which demonstrate that, whatever Wade’s strengths as a detective novelist, he wasn’t at all as adept with the short story. Without a full-length puzzle or the room to develop characters, Wade is lost, and the reader receives only an impression of drabness and dullness.

Only two of the stories are really good: the first, “Duello,” in which Poole’s reconstruction of a modern duel / murder is coupled with a presentation of modern decadence, the product of “war-time adolescence and post-War demoralisation”; and the penultimate, “The Amateurs,” a most amusing pastiche of Raffles with an excellent twist.

For the rest, the Poole stories vary greatly in quality, ranging from the quite reasonable “Wind in the East” and “Sub-branch” to the mediocre “Baronet’s Finger” and “Missing Undergraduate” (far-fetched).  The Crofts pastiche, “The Three Keys,” is ingenious but utterly incomprehensible without pen and paper to hand, and “The Real Thing” is, as the title suggests, a rather violent and sordid account of police procedure, really only interesting for its possible influence on Michael Gilbert.

The rest of the book is taken up with inverted stories of little or no account, notable only for the very bad “Four to One—Bar One”.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (E.E. Mavrogordato, 29th June 1933):

To read the eleven stories of detection collected in Policeman’s Lot is to recognise with increasing conviction that in Mr. Henry Wade, the author, one has to do with a good writer.  He can interest us in his narrative in the first page from his manner of presenting the setting—even if it is nothing more abnormal than a moving staircase at a railway station.  So with his people.  One credits them with doing something in life besides playing parts in detection.  The men to whom it is assigned to shoot at pheasants and stalk deer might hit the first and get a sight of the second.  His bookmaker contrives to make the technical troubles of bookmakers so interesting that one wants to say “another time” to the approaching blackmailer when he arrives punctually to put the story into the high gear.  As for his Jew moneylender, he does his money-lending with such whimsical detachment and takes a risk to his life with so much dignity and self-possession that when he is to be taken for a ride to visit the mysterious stranger one would like to warn him—and of few Jew money-lenders in fiction can that be said.

Being a good writer, Mr. Wade sees to it that his stories have shape.  The specific shape for detective stories is logical articulation, and that these stories have.  What are the indispensable factors?  Crime, clues, detective.  It is a possible inference from his treatment of these that the mind of Mr. Wade is rather too fastidious for the genre.  It often rejects the commonplace in motive, with the result that the reader condones his crime only because its developments, as he treats them, lend themselves to a good story.  At least four of the crimes are by ordinary human standards the crimes of a maniac.  Mr. Wade is no less fastidious in the other direction with his clues.  In one story he does condescend to use finger-prints to confirm an inference; but in most of the others the clues that lead to the culprit’s undoing would have been insufficient had not Mr. Wade directed the sleuth’s attention to them.  The detective, Inspector Poole, who solves the problem in the first six stories and so far as method goes might officiate in the others, is the man who reacts to such slight clues as are given him.  Otherwise he has no noticeable characteristics—and that, Mr. Wade might point out, would go some way to getting him an appointment for which it is usually desirable that the holder should function unobserved.


Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 30th July 1933):

I want to talk this week about short stories.  You, gentle reader, are said to have a prejudice against them.  Yet the world’s greatest reputation in detective fiction was built up on the short story.  There are only four full-length Sherlock Holmes novels: the rest of that enormous fame is a short-story achievement.

This week we have an excellent volume of short stories by Henry Wade, who is one of our best and soundest detective writers.  His plots are ingenious, his tales well written; taken as a whole, they offer better problems than many of the Holmes series.  They lack only one quality: that touch of glamour which makes such things memorable.  The same might be said of almost all detective stories written to-day.

Why is this?  There are still writers who can put this quality into the detective novel.  There are, I think, two major causes for its absence from the modern “short”.  One is, quite brutally and simply, that the magazine editors who publish the tales in the first instance impose a limit of 6,000 words or so.  Every word extraneous to the plot has to be ruthlessly cut out.  All those fascinating prologues—the most characteristic and best-remembered parts of the Holmes stories—all the fun with Watson’s boots, the intriguing allusions to the unrecorded cases, the little disquisitions on “My methods, Watson”, the monographs on tobacco and the Polyphonic motets of Lassus, the quaint glimpses of the Baker Street household—all these beloved side-issues which make the personality would have been lost to the world under the 6,000-word rule.

Insistence on Murder

Only three writers have succeeded in establishing a memorable personality under the new conditions; Austin Freeman, by specialising in a very restricted type of plot; H.C. Bailey, by appealing to a rather restricted circle of readers; and G.K. Chesterton, by firmly washing out all the technical complications we have come to expect in a detective story.

This brings us to the second cause of trouble: the determination of writers to write, and readers to read, no detective story that is not concerned with murder.  The investigation of a murder has become so full of technical complications in these days that the details clutter the story.  Now, out of the twelve “Adventures” of Sherlock Holmes, only four have to do with murder, yet the remaining eight are just as entertaining and memorable as the four.  And room has thus been made to exploit the personality of the detective.

Reader, writer, and editor must share the blame for fastening the shackles on the detective short story, but the reader has the whip-hand of the other two.  If he will take the short story seriously, and demand from the editor more elasticity and less bloodshed, then the writer will be happy to oblige.

In the meantime, Policeman’s Lot is as good a collection of detective yarns as can be looked for under the present conditions—a hundred times better worth reading than many a tale that has been blown up artificially to novel length in an effort to circumvent the prejudice against short stories.