Quick Look: New Graves at Great Norne, by Henry Wade (1947)

New Graves at Great Norne, by Henry Wade (1947)

51fOz96CZNLWhat’s this book about?

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.

UnknownWhy is this worth reading?

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.

thOne 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.

 

 

12 thoughts on “Quick Look: New Graves at Great Norne, by Henry Wade (1947)

  1. Bev Hankins says:

    Wow… I didn’t realize Wade was such a high-priced commodity. I’ve lucked into all my Perennial editions at a fraction of the prices you mention above.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      You know, I have too … I took the prices from Abebooks.com, where at least you know you’re dealing with a reputable dealer. I personally paid $1 for my copy of Great Norne — I suspect bargains can be had for canny shoppers who keep their eyes open in thrift shops.

  2. Albert says:

    For my money, Henry Wade was the best detective story novelist England produced in the 20th century. He was an adult who wrote adult novels for an adult audience. He wasn’t playing games like Agatha Christie. A number of his books are that rare thing, first-rate detective novels which are simultaneously first-rate mainstream novels.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I can’t say I agree with respect to this particular book, but only because the motivation of the murderer and that kind of long-term “embedding” in order to accomplish a hidden goal is not really realistic, to me. This particular book is fantastic (as in, based on fantasy). But from the way Wade handled the interactions that had nothing to do with the police, I’d be predisposed to agree with you; he could easily have written this as a non-genre piece. He understands character, how to display it, and how to make a plot arise out of it.
      I honestly don’t know what to think about the idea that Wade is the best of the 20th century. I suspect that this is the kind of terminology that everyone will want to bound with whereases and caveats; my own inclination is to think that probably 95% of the world’s population would say it was Agatha Christie, regardless of any qualities associated with her work but merely her name recognition. Being the best-selling author in the history of the world has to mean SOMETHING in this context.

      • curtis evans says:

        Noah, I really thought the resolution was a disappointment in what otherwise was an admirable book. To me the conclusion felt rushed and perfunctory and it didn’t help that the motive, even by that time, was so unoriginal (and, as you say, rather fantastic for a “realistic” book).

      • Noah Stewart says:

        I have to think that this has something to do with the fact that this sort of book was still considered worthwhile in 1947 — where the crazy person lays a long slow plan for revenge and takes on a new identity and fools everyone. I just can’t believe that really happens or has ever really happened. Just like some art is “painterly”, I think this book is “writerly”; it’s a useful idea to underlie the book and provide a surprise, but I suspect all its readers suspend their disbelief and focus on the beautiful writing.

  3. Albert says:

    I did not say Wade was the best, I said that I thought he was the best. I think that because he was a first rate detective novelist who expanded the art and subject matter of the detective story, including being a pioneer of the police procedural form, while at the same time dealing with issues of importance as a novelist. He took the fair play detective story and the police procedural and raised them to the level of art. Agatha Christie, on the other hand, I consider to be a mere popular entertainer on the same cultural level as the crossword puzzle. I do not think Agatha Christie is the best selling author in world history; I think what you are referring to is the fact that she has the record as an individual writer for the most foreign translations of her works. However, I don’t think popularity equates with quality. I am sure it will always be the case that people would rather be entertained than be required to ponder issues of substance. I think art requires us to do both and I think Wade was an artist, and I think that as an artist of the detective story he was the best that England produced in the 20th century. But that is only my personal opinion, and I express it for what it is worth, which is little.

    New Graves at Great Norne was one of his later books written after the war and not one of his best. Barzun and Taylor did not like it much either. I would recommend Lonely Magdalen, which is available very cheaply at Amazon.com.

  4. Noah Stewart says:

    When I called Christie the best selling author in the history of the world, I was actually referring to the fact that she is the best selling author in world history, although both she and William Shakespeare have sold about 4 billion books apiece and either might on any given day be thought of as first or second on the list.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_fiction_authors

    • curtis evans says:

      “When I called Christie the best selling author in the history of the world, I was actually referring to the fact that she is the best selling author in world history”

      Imagine! 😉

  5. Albert says:

    I had seen the Wikipedia list. I do not put any stock in it. It does not state how its statistics were complied or by whom or give any authority for them. It also states that it was leaving out authors for which it could not compile statistics. In fact, I do not think there is any way to compile accurate statistics on a world-wide basis. Wikipedia is curated by amateurs and is notoriously unreliable. In any event, the Wikipedia list still puts Shakespeare on top. I don’t think it matters because we can agree that she has sold a huge number of books.

    I would go a step further and state that Dr. Johnson thought that the only real critic is time. By that standard she is a success in terms of quality. No one stays around for 100 years without having something worth reading. The problem is that what she offers is only entertainment when she could and should have offered more.

    The last written of the Poirot books appears to be Elephants Can Remember (1972). The problem is that the Poirot of 1972 appears to me to be exactly the same character as the Poirot of 1920 except for a few more grey hairs. There has not been any interior development from the start to the end. Poirot is merely a bundle of idiosyncrasies. Once you take away the mustaches, the round head, the patent leather shoes and the little grey cells, there really does not seem to be to be anything else. After more than 50 years of books, I still don’t have a clue as to what is going on in Poirot’s head and what he thinks of the significance of the crimes he investigates or the nature of the society in which they take place. Agatha Christie stated that she hated the character and wanted to get rid of him, but the public would not let her; i.e., he was good for a few more dollars. In a larger sense, though, she does her character a major disservice; if Poirot bored her it was because she took no efforts with him. If she was not satisfied with her character, why was that Poirot’s fault? Whom does she have to blame but herself? The hardest thing for any author to do is to make his characters come alive; to imbue them with life so that they come to act on their own. When an author is an artist, you can imagine, and want to imagine, going out to have a beer with that character; you can imagine the sorts of conversations you would have with that character. For the life of me, I cannot think of any conversation I would have with Poirot; as soon as he started talking about his patent leather shoes, I would have to leave. I think Agatha Christie had the skill to make Poirot come to life, she just couldn’t be bothered. It was enough for her to turn out the same sort of book as the decades rolled by.

    It did not have to be this way. The Ellery Queen of The Roman Hat Mystery was just another Philo Vance clone. The Ellery Queen of Cat of Many Tails was a good deal different. He had grown and matured over the years. This was a man who had become acquainted with failure and had pondered its consequences for him as a man and as a detective. He had obtained an interior life. Cat of Many Tails is about many thing, from abnormal psychology to the sociology of a city under siege. Queen and his detective were trying to do something new and important. They were trying to grow as authors and characters. I see no trace of this in Agatha Christie. In the first paragraph of The Little Sister alone, Raymond Chandler gives us more of the interior life and social attitudes of Philip Marlowe than I ever see in Agatha Christie. When Chandler stated that detective novels were second-rate because they were made from second-rate materials, I think he was correct. But I would go a step further and state that it does not have to be this way, as Chandler himself demonstrated. I also find this in Henry Wade. Mist on the Saltings and The High Sheriff are not just first-rate mysteries, they are about something. The description of trench warfare given in The High Sheriff is about something important, and it is integrated into the mystery itself. I see nothing of this in Agatha Christie.

    To sum up the point I am trying to make, there is no question but that Agatha Christie is a first-rate entertainer with a world-wide audience and a long shelf life ahead of her. But I do not think she has any critical significance. She has nothing to teach us. This is unfortunate because I think she could have done so if she had wanted to.

  6. tracybham says:

    Very nice overview of the book and I think I would really like it. When I have more room on my shelves and can afford it.

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