New Graves at Great Norne, by Henry Wade (1947)
The story begins with a leisurely introduction to the little English village of Great Norne. As we are told in the opening lines of chapter two, “Great Norne had once been a flourishing little port, in the days before railways drew a large part of the profit away from the coast-wise carrying traffic … In the early nineteenth century it had attained its peak population of over five thousand, but it was now down below three, and numbers were slowly but steadily falling.” Wade sketches an economical picture of all levels of society; a foolish elderly woman church organist, the squire of the local manor, fishermen and manual labourers who drink at the dockside pub. When the Reverend Theobald Torridge is discovered dead at the bottom of a flight of dockside stone steps, his legs entangled in some rope, everyone thinks he’s lost his way in the fog and taken a tumble. (And, in order to preserve the clerical reputation, the coroner neglects to mention the broken bottle and general scent of whisky surrounding the late vicar.)
No one seems to think for a moment that this is murder; why, there hasn’t been a violent death in the community since young Ellen Barton committed suicide twenty years earlier. But when Rev. Torridge is accompanied to heaven by Colonel Cherrington, who has apparently committed suicide, and then there are more deaths, including the violent murders of two elderly spinster sisters, Chief Inspector Myrtle must investigate all aspects of all the crimes. Suspicion falls upon one or another of Colonel Cherrington’s family and acquaintances, and the villagers in general, until the common link shared by the victims is realized and the crime is brought home to an entirely unlikely perpetrator.
Henry Wade is not a well-known mystery writer but he is certainly a very good one. My plot summary above doesn’t approach the fully kaleidoscopic view of village life provided in this volume; the first two chapters are devoted entirely to laying down the manner in which this story will be told, where we learn a little about the lives and backgrounds of various residents of Great Norne. This doesn’t sound unusual, but what sets this volume apart is the high quality of the writing.
In fact this is a very gentle mystery, all things considered. I wouldn’t call it a “cozy”, because there is no sense that any unpleasantness is being overlooked or glossed over so as to spare the reader. There are occasionally violent moments and it’s not likely that the average reader will make it through the scene where two elderly women are murdered without at least a little mental discomfort. But gentle — gentle in the sense that everything moves very, very slowly. I thought as I savoured the surprising ending of this volume that it was rather like cooking a live lobster. You put the lobster in water and heat it very, very slowly so that the lobster doesn’t realize he’s meant for dinner; at the end, though, you have a dead lobster and a high-quality meal. The police here are not chasing around in high speed cars — they’re barely doing anything at all except talk with people. Even though there are a handful of deaths in a short time, everyone goes about their everyday lives and waits for the police to solve the crimes.
Part of this slow, slow build of tension is the very realistic idea that not everyone in the village is wholly concerned with the murders 24/7 to the exclusion of the rest of their everyday lives. People still do their daily shopping and meet friends; they have family problems and money problems. We briefly share the thoughts of many of the residents of the village, their opinions, and we learn enough about many of them to know what lies beneath the surface. We learn that what people think of their fellow villagers doesn’t always share the same benevolence with which the villagers view their own actions. Indeed there is a lovely paragraph in chapter 1 that describes the vicar that will give you the idea both of the difference between internal and external view, and the high quality of the writing:
“The Reverend Theobald Turridge … was, in fact, narrow in outlook and interest, harsh in judgment of his fellow-men, though diplomatically gentle with those who thought and saw as he did … [H]is good looks were spoiled by a weak and obstinate mouth, which he firmly believed to be strong and sensitive. … He was a good preacher … but the congregation showed a growing proportion of older people; the young thought him pompous and an ass, their harsh and critical judgment missing his better points.”
We see how he sees himself, and we see how others see him. Everyone is a mixture of good and bad. A foolish spinster cannot carry a tune, to the great detriment of the church choir, but everyone forbears to say anything because she devotes herself so thoroughly to this good work and obviously loves it. A very humble workman is rude and crude, and gets so drunk that he passes out in his own barrow after a night at the pub, but he provides liquor, food, and companionship for an elderly woman neighbour whom he calls “ma”. And as I mentioned above, the coroner decides to ignore a smell of alcohol and a broken whisky bottle found when Reverend Turridge is found at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, because the coroner felt the elderly reverend deserved to be remembered for his good works. In other words, plot developments arise spontaneously out of a firm grasp of character and a knowledge of how people really act.
One of the most delightful aspects of this book is that the murderer is someone whose thoughts we have been allowed to share, in the same minimal way that we have shared the thoughts of other villagers — but because that person’s thoughts were occupied with non-murderous topics at the time, we learn nothing connected with the murder. The murderer, like all the other villagers, has a day-to-day life and things that they consider important with which they occupy their days, and the murderer’s building towards the murders is long and drawn-out. In fact the murderer is concealing the passions which bring about the murders so thoroughly and well that it comes as a complete surprise to both the villagers and the reader when the truth is revealed. Is this fair? I rather thought it was, actually. If you have a serious issue in your own life, you may think about it a lot, but occasionally you are more concerned about whether the rain will stop before you have to walk home, and if someone dipped into your thoughts at that moment, that’s what they’d get. I think this is a legitimate ploy — not quite as deeply buried as, say, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but if you are misled, I think you only have yourself to blame.
If you are an aficionado of the English village mystery, I think you will find this a very fine specimen; the writing is really superb. On nearly every page you will find a beautifully-turned phrase, many of which will make you pause for a moment to appreciate their rightness. The dialogue is spot-on, all social classes having their individual speech patterns beautifully noted and reproduced. The writing is economical — locations and clothing are sketched, not described in detail. But behind it all you have the sense of Henry Wade’s superb command of all the details of the everyday life of an English village of a few thousand souls. He knows where the local squire makes economies and how often the poorest workman can afford to drink gin rather than beer; he knows that the kindness of the doctor’s wife is well hidden behind her teasing of her husband, and that people already knew exactly how much alcohol was consumed by Reverend Turridge. In fact this is a village where everyone knows everyone’s background, history, secrets, and probable future, and Wade knows that in order to be believable, a murder plot must be very, very carefully concealed from one’s fellow villagers. Every character seems authentic; every description seems accurate; and every development seems logical. Given the underlying premise that motivates the murderer, everything is logical and necessary, and this is very often not something I find myself able to say about any murder mystery. Just like the idea that the most expensive clothing is frequently the least embellished, sometimes the best-written mysteries are the ones that move slowly and eschew wildly dramatic plot developments.
I have to say that this sort of book is an acquired taste. Rather like Dickensian-era fiction, where the author took a couple of chapters to tell you the family history and background of the major characters before they were even born, this book is s-l-o-w going. No sex, no explosions, no car chases, and nothing at all really happens until Chapter 3. The police are nonentities with official titles who merely get the job done without troubling the reader to take their characters into account. But as I have come to learn over the years, it takes a very intelligent writer to produce a book like this, without relying on Grand Guignol or terrible madness or even a meretricious focus on sexual peccadillos. And this is an intelligent writer who knows how to keep the reader interested in character and plot actions with which the characters are vitally concerned. Just like that lobster, if you stay in the cool water of the first few chapters, you’ll find that your interest heats up, little by little, until you find yourself at two a.m. just turning pages in order to find out whodunit. And THAT is the mark of a great mystery writer, to my mind. If you don’t have this taste already, I urge you to acquire it.
My favourite edition
Henry Wade is an acquired taste, and you will have to go some distance and lay out some money to acquire it. My own copy is the Perennial Library P807 paperback shown at the head of this post; I have never seen or held another copy of this book, or indeed any Wade novel, except the handful of paperbacks produced in the mid-80s by Perennial Library. A reading copy will set you back $15 or $20 — yes, for the paperback — and I can only hope that this author’s work comes back into print in the near future so that more people will be able to appreciate it.
So I have to say that my favourite edition is the only one I’ve ever seen, with its bright yellow background and a good piece of illustration; I don’t believe I’ve located a reproduction of the first edition’s cover anywhere on the internet, and the reprint hardcover from the 70s above is dully-coloured and doesn’t illustrate any scene from the book.