Well, I guess I’ll be reading everything Henry Wade ever wrote. I mean, I’ve heard that some of his work isn’t all that great, but man, Heir Presumptive is the type of novel that’ll leave you forever searching for another taste. And I’ve had it for years, just wasting away at the bottom of some neglected pile of books that I excitedly bought, but then didn’t excitedly read. Thankfully a glowing review over at The Invisible Event led to me rescuing the book and placing it in the main To Be Read stack… where it sat for another eight months.
But, it has now been read, and I am a full Henry Wade convert. This is the book that you just never want to end. There isn’t much of a hook for me to dangle for you – Heir Presumptive is a fairly straight forward inverted mystery – which is why it’s all the more amazing that I lapped up every page.
We follow the fortunes of Eustace Hendel, a delightfully selfish deadbeat who has squandered what riches he’s managed to cheat off of others. Eustace comes from a long line of money, and the prospect of having to find a second rate flat horrifies him. A swimming accident leaves two distant cousins dead, and at the funeral it dawns on Eustace that there are just a few inconvenient lives standing in the way of him becoming the heir to the family fortune and accompanying title.
What’s so great about it is that Eustace’s intentions are plainly obvious to just about every other character in the book. There’s a bit of Anthony Berkeley in the way that Wade presents his characters; a coy wink at the smugness, while never actually veering into comedy. Eustace is that strange character that you should hate, and yet oddly just want to follow around, and possibly even see succeed in his schemes.
“It did not occur to Eustace, any more than it had to Jill Paris, to look at this arrangement from the point of view of the girl whose evening was being spoilt.”
This being an inverted mystery, there is of course a murder to be had. It unfolds in a beautiful remote Scottish landscape, a map of which is depicted in the rear of my 1984 Perennial Library edition. I won’t get into the details, as figuring out exactly what Eustace plans to do is part of the fun, but when the death finally comes, it is absolutely riveting. I honestly don’t recall ever reading a murder scene that had my heart pumping and head swimming. There’s nothing especially graphic about what happens, but somehow it was just so visceral. I actually struggled to go on reading for the next ten minutes because I just had the sound of blood pulsing through my ears.
There’s still a lot of book left following the murder, but as with most inverted mysteries, it does little good to get into the details. This is longish for a Golden Age mystery (my edition ran 330 pages), but I would have gladly read 300 more. And man, when the end comes… Well, there are parts of this story that I imagine most readers will see coming, and yet it’s so delightful when they do come. As much as I knew what was happening, it was still shocking to actually experience it. And who puts down this book after the last page and doesn’t just sit there lost in thought?
So yeah, those other two Wade books that I have wasting away in some pile are getting a promotion. There’s a lot more Wade for me to buy, but unfortunately these books aren’t that easy to come by. The idea that Heir Presumptive isn’t actively in print is a bit mind boggling, so I’m hoping they get picked for release by some keen publisher.
I imagine that if you get your hands on Heir Presumptive, you’ll have the same 1984 Perennial Library edition as me. The cover is simply awful (and very 80s) and feels so unrepresentative of the story. A Scottish coastal landscape would be much better.
I imagine all editions of this book come with the family tree upfront (which most any reader will have memorized by midway through the book, am I right?), as well as the map of the deer forest (which doesn’t matter too much, but does give a nice understanding of where the hunting scenes play out). The Perennial Library map is in the back of the book, tucked between the final page of the story and twelve pages of book ads. This made it kind of inconvenient to find, as you have to flip through the back of the book, all the while hoping that you don’t glance at some give-away sentence at the end of the story.