By Henry Wade
First published: UK, Constable, 1937
Sir Robert D’Arcy, High Sheriff of Brackenshire and head of an old county family, harbours “a skeleton in the cupboard” – the memory of what he regards as his shameful surrender to the Germans in 1918. Gradually he realises that nothing is known of the incident and his confidence returns. He builds for himself a position of honour and responsibility in his county. Then, out of the blue sky, appears a man who knows of the incident and who threatens to reveal it…the old story of blackmail but with an unusual price. The High Sheriff fights this new enemy in his own way but is perpetually handicapped by his own distorted view of his position, of his past deed, of his family pride. There is a tragedy which the Brackenshire police investigate, themselves handicapped by reluctance to stir up mud in distinguished waters. How the ageing Chief Constable faces his problem is as interesting a study as that of the High Sheriff himself.
The story is laid in a hunting country and both hunting and shooting play an important part in the development of the tale. Brackenshire and its police are familiar to readers of Henry Wade’s No Friendly Drop.
My last Wade.
One of his best, and his best in his semi-inverted genre (Heir Presumptive is fully Ilesian, not inverted). The High Sheriff, Sir Robert D’Arcy, a vain man of old family (and something of a brute—witness his treatment of his son) is blackmailed by a horse-coper who knows he was guilty of momentary cowardice in WWI. D’Arcy tries to kill his persecutor but fails; later, during a shooting-party on his estate, Gerald Barton is shot.
The detection (ballistics and cartridges) and shooting-party recall Connington’s excellent The Ha-ha Case. Detection is, however, significantly less important than the human drama—which raises the interesting question: how GA humdrum was Wade? Only his early books (up to 1934) are formal problems in the manner of Crofts, Rhode, Connington or the Coles (big business, unbreakable alibis); after that, they’re either semi-inverted or police procedurals in which there’s only one suspect.
SPOILER This seems to be one of those, but isn’t, quite. The High Sheriff isn’t guilty; instead, his son (whom I didn’t consider) is the murderer. While the twist at the end makes it one of three of Wade’s books with a surprise ending, it’s very grim, and comes across in human terms as a tragedy, with a similar situation to P.D. James’s Shroud for a Nightingale SPOILER (devotion, protecting loved one from blackmail, ruining relationship in process—trust between mother and son destroyed).
- Horses and hunting gentry: Diplomat’s Folly, A Dying Fall—arrogance and selfishness of the fox-hunting classes (destroying tenants’ wire fences). I don’t understand the mentality that thinks shooting birds or hunting foxes is good “sport”. C.f. Tey’s Brat Farrar.
Times Literary Supplement (Sir Claud Schuster, 13th November 1937):
Henry Wade, a pseudonym now acknowledged as that of Sir Henry Aubrey Fletcher, has always taken as much pleasure in the drawing of character as in the invention of a plot. And, as his main theme is murder and his power of handling his imaginary people has grown, his books have almost necessarily become somewhat grim. In this one he attains, in the leading character, almost to the dignity of tragedy.
Sir Robert D’Arcy was haunted by the idea that he had shown cowardice in the War, and that, if his cowardice became known, his name would be disgraced. When blackmailed by a threat of exposure, he allowed himself to think of murder. The blackmailer was shot dead at a shooting-party. The resulting puzzle is well designed and well executed. The setting of the story is excellent. Naturally Sir Henry knows his world, a rural county, where interest is divided between hunting and shooting, and where the High Sheriff must leave his pleasures and his estate management to attend the Judge of assize, when his duty calls him. Here you have the modern sporting types displayed as they are; and the intrusion into a long-settled community of the two ex-Indian cavalry men, starting as gentleman horse-copers, blends into the narrative and produces the catastrophe. As a novel of manners, as a study of two slightly abnormal characters, as a sporting story and as a piece of detective fiction, the book takes high rank.
Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 23rd November 1937):
Readers of fiction have been known to avoid the detective novel on the plea that they can take no interest in the “Who did it?” theme; and indeed if the detective novel had no more than that to offer to intelligent people it would long ago have perished from its own inanity. In fact, in the last few years it has shown itself capable of as wide a scope as any other form of the novel. For sheer virtuosity of writing Mr. Anthony Berkeley’s Trial and Error can challenge comparison with any book of this publishing season, and in the equally recent Face on the Cutting-room Floor, by Mr. Cameron McCabe, the detective novel displays itself as being as up to date as could be desired by even the Very Youngest Undergraduate of All.
Now in The High Sheriff, by Mr. Henry Wade, it poses a psychological problem of profound and topical significance. What, Mr. Wade seems to ask, would be the effect on a man of high social position and ancient lineage, proud and sensitive in character, if in the unspeakable ordeal of the war he felt that he had fallen short of that high standard his name and rank, his position and his ancestry, demanded from him? And what would be the effect on him if years later, when he had almost succeeded in putting that dark memory behind, there should appear a blackmailer threatening to make public the story of his supposed weakness? A moving, a tragic situation, and one offering ground for endless discussion as to the way in which such a man as Mr. Wade depicts could, would, or should have met it. Would indeed murder have ensued? If so, whose? By whom? As in other of his books, Mr. Wade shows that he can describe a police investigation with a patent accuracy that is altogether admirable, and his vivid, exciting descriptions of hunting and shooting scenes give a relief that, to be candid, is very welcome in this bleak, relentless tale.
Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 17th December 1937):
In The High Sheriff Mr. Wade turns from pure detection to the novel of character with a crime motif. The turn, to my mind, is not for the better: but that may be because I don’t care for hunting and shooting, which play a large part in the book, and because I found the hero, Sir Robert D’Arcy, rather a stick. I could not, therefore, feel much sympathy for this rigid, upright man when he is blackmailed by an ex-officer who claims to have witnessed a piece of cowardice on Robert’s part during the War—cowardice from whose humiliation Robert has only just recovered. At any rate, the blackmailer gets killed at a shoot on Robert’s estate and we have already seen Robert trying to kill him on the hunting-field. The subsequent police work, as in all Mr. Wade’s novels, is excellent. I wish Sir Robert D’Arcy hadn’t stuck in my gizzard so: perhaps it means he is a successful character after all.