Sunday, June 28, 2015

Constable Guard Thyself! - Henry Wade

What's needed in any copy of Constable Guard Thyself! (1934) -- at least for a poor ignorant US reader like myself -- is a list of characters with a chart explaining their police rank and where they fall in the hierarchy. Perhaps a brief explanation detailing the difference between police rank and military rank. The complicated and twisty plot in this excellent detective novel didn't confuse me but the way the policemen referred to one another by job title, police rank and sometimes military title was headache inducing. Luckily, I take notes for all these blog posts and referring back to them helped straighten everyone out. This is a police procedural that is very much about job duties, job rank and the policemen's military past. Wade gets a lot of mileage out of all three elements.

The opening chapter introduces the band of policemen who make up the Brodshire Constabulary in the fictional town of Brodbury.  In the first few pages Wade links several characters to one another via their time in France during World War 1. After some rambling and reminiscing about the war from visiting General Cawdon the talk turns to Albert Hinde, a recently released prisoner who had been sent to prison for poaching and murder.  He was one of three arrested but the only one brought to trial.  The others became soldiers but lost their lives during the war.  Coincidentally, those two men were under the leadership of Captain Anthony Scole, the current Chief Constable at Brodbury police station.  These two incidents -- military service at Somme and how the three men were caught during a night time police stakeout -- are not mentioned in passing as colorful background.  They turn out to be the most important elements of the intricate plot.

You can see already that the use of Captain and General was confusing to me. Unlike US police ranks which borrow sergeant, lieutenant and captain from military ranking British police ranking has its own peculiar set up. Though Scole is a policeman and a Chief Constable he is repeatedly referred to as Captain Scole, a reference to his military rank back in the days of WW1. I was reminded of the hundreds of Chief Constables in books by the myriad writers I've read in the past who were Colonels in one army or another and still retained use of that rank. Took me to this long to realize that the military rank and the title of Chief Constable were completely different. Adding to my confusion is the fact I had always thought a Chief Constable was an appointed position in rural areas where police departments were made up almost solely of constables. Call me a slow learner. Took me to about the halfway mark to get used to the mix of military and police ranks.

But back to the engaging story of this very modern police procedural...

Hinde harasses and threatens Scole both in person and in letters. A few days later Scole is shot dead in his office at the station. Suspicion immediately falls on the ex-prisoner and the hunt is on for him.  Begrudgingly, Superintendent Venning (now the acting Chief Constable and in charge of the station) calls in Scotland Yard and they send over Inspector Poole and Detective Sergeant Gower, two of Wade's series characters. After a day or so of bristled relations between urban and rural policemen and an odd admission of somewhat unethical police procedure on Venning's part, the two agree to put aside their prejudices and work together on finding the real murderer of Capt. Scole.

Map of Brodbury police station
(frontispiece in my edition)

As evidence is uncovered and alibis are made clear all are astonished that Hinde could not have committed the murder. When letters hinting at blackmail and a scandal within the Brodbury police department are unearthed Poole is convinced that a policeman killed Scole. Furthermore, Scole was hiding a personally amassed fortune of close to forty thousand pounds and was parsimonious and secretive about his money. He kept control of his wife and daughter by giving them mean allowances leading them to believe he was not well paid. Motives for murder begin to multiple and the suspect list slowly grows.

Overall, the book has a surprisingly modern feel to it.  The way the characters talk to one another, the detail of the police relationships both professionally and personally, and the urgency with which the police behave towards finding the killer of one of their own are all hallmarks of a thoroughly contemporary crime novel. Remove the talk of World War I and this might read like any modern day bestseller.

Wade also has a talent for making each character uniquely human.  We learn that Inspector Tallard is an amateur magician who entertains at children's parties, Gower has skills of a gymnast that come in handy when asked to scale a rain pipe in a reconstruction of the crime, and Venning's attempts to be the station ballistics experts are fraught with human error. Scole's daughter likes Poole because he is down to earth and easy to talk to not all stuffy like most of the policemen she has met.  She has a few amusing scenes when after receiving her inheritance she buys a new car and takes Poole for a reckless joyride around town nearly causing several motor vehicle accidents along the way.

This is a rather hard to find title in Wade's prolific output. It's too bad it's so scarce because I found it fascinating on all levels. If the identity of the murderer is perhaps too easy to discover through a few blatant clues in the very first chapter it is no fault of Wade's. He more than makes up for that slip with an elaborately constructed story, multiple twists and sub-developments, and a cast of very human and complex characters.

One of the Detection Club's founding members Wade was highly regarded by his peers as an ingenious plotter. If Constable Guard Thyself! is considered one of his weaker efforts I am eager to read more and find out how he can improve upon his talents so obviously on display here. This one is enthusiastically recommended with all its minor faults. But good luck finding in a copy!

GOOD NEWS UPDATE! Of all of Henry Wade's book this one is the only title available for a free download from Hathi Trust Digital Library.  Click here for the book. And happy reading!

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Reading Challenge update:  I read this for Rich Westwood's monthly Crimes of the Century meme. During June we were to read a mystery published in 1934.

23 comments:

  1. To be honest, I think even a humble Brit might get confused by the use of the double rankings.

    I must see if I can find some Henry Wade! Many thanks for the introduction to his work.

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  2. Thanks for the peek at this one, John. I've thoroughly enjoyed the Wade novels I've been able to find--but it's been slim pickings for this "I prefer to hunt them down in bookshops, sales, etc" collector. Given how hard this one is to come by, I'll probably never get hold of it (unless Wade sees reprint as the GAD writers seem to be enjoying just now).

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  3. When I was young the convention was that only army officers of the rank of major or above could use their rank in civilian life. Captain should be too low a rank for that. Or were they calling him captain only with reference to his military service?

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    1. Interesting. He's referred to as Captain Scole consistently throughout the book never as Chief Constable Scole. Adding further confusion for me was that there were two Superintendents in the novel; one was acting-Chief Constable after Scole's murder and one was Chief Clerk. That chart would've been very handy. If ever I get a chance to reprint this book I'd definitely create one along with an explanatory note about the British police ranks and duties.

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    2. It became acceptable - or permitted - for people to call themselves "Captain" in civil life after WWI, but there was a certain dubiousness to it: it suggested either that people had failed in civilian life and harked back to very minor glory, or that they felt the need to emphasise their apparent respectability. Travelling salesmen were obvious examples of both categories. Evelyn Waugh's Captain Grimes is an obvious example and the famously depraved novelist Simon Raven, who had had to resign his commission to avoid a court-martial for welching on his debts, is said to have called himself Captain Raven purely to emphasise his disreputability.

      In this book, is Captain Scole's military rank in WWI emphasised because of the importance of that period and his position to the story, perhaps? On the other hand, a Chief Constable is an office, not a rank. Even now in a British paper, a Chief Constable wouldn't be referred to as "Chief Constable X", but as "Z X, Chief Constable of Y Police Force", and afterwards as "the Chief Constable"

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  4. Great review, John. This one actually was published in the US though. There's a lot on Wade in my new book.

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    1. Thanks for the correction, Curt. I assumed it had no US edition because I have never seen one in over 20 years. But of course today I just saw a US edition for sale on the Mysterious Bookshop website. (turning red) I need to remember to double check my Hubin before typing up my "availability report " in the closing paragraphs.

      I'll have to get a copy of your book on Wade and the Coles. I'm a fan of most of what I've read of the Coles and now I'm a new fan of Wade's.

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  5. Like you, and probably much more so, I would have been - still am - confused about the ranks and titles. This applies here in the US too, I guess. Example, detective, detective inspector, chief inspector, detective chief inspector... Can't tell the players without a program. The book sounds interesting. Maybe the author should have just given them all last names, no titles

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  6. Sounds good, John, But I'm so easily confused! At any rate, I'll probably not be able to find a copy. Though I love a good police procedural. Especially those set in England.

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  7. A very enjoyable review. For me, very few Golden Age writers surpassed Wade.

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  8. This book is very difficult to obtain. Perhaps you can include this for publishing when you eventually become a publisher yourself !

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    1. I know you like digital books, Santosh. It's available through Hathitrust Digital Library for a free download. Click here for the entire book. It even includes the map frontispiece. Enjoy!

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  9. Thanks John for introducing yet another forgotten book. Thanks also for the link. I am off to download it.

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  10. I too would like to download the book. How does one get around the obstacle of having to belong to an accredited organization?

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    1. I didn't realize the download was restricted. Looks like you'd have to connect to the internet and stay on the site in order to read it this way. Sorry.

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    2. You can download page by page and save. Then you can merge all the pdfs into a single pdf by using a suitable programme or even online at pdfjoiner.com

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    3. (continuing)
      Of course, the process is tedious !

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    4. Of course, the process is tedious

      I know, Santosh! That's why I decided not to do it. It's a bit obnoxious of Hathi to have done this: if it's legally available they should make it so, and if it isn't they (really) shouldn't be adopting this silly piecemeal approach.

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  11. Henry Wade is also interesting because his real name was Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet - an example of an author who demoted himself socially in his pseudonym. It's more common to do the opposite.

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  12. Wade is one of the greats, even though most people have never heard of him. HEIR PRESUMPTIVE is particularly good but anything of his is worth grabbing.

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  13. The Murder Room (Orion) has released kindle editions of 3 books by Henry Wade on 14th May. A further 18 books (including Constable Guard Thyself) will be released on 14th June.

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