Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mist on the Saltings, by Henry Wade

I picked up this 1930s British mystery after seeing it praised on mystery writer Martin Edwards' blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? recently. I'm a little surprised as I go back to Edwards' posts to see that he hasn't reviewed it directly, but really only mentioned it in admiring aside. Edwards is more than familiar with Wade's work, though, and has even written a piece for him for an encyclopedia of crime edited by Barry Forshaw.

Henry Wade, it turns out, is a pen name. You can understand why Major Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet CVO DSO may have wanted something shorter to go by on book jackets, even barring other reasons for the pseudonym. Aubrey-Fletcher served in both World Wars, played cricket and found time to be the High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire at one point in his life, but that didn't keep him from writing what by all accounts are some excellent mystery novels.

The story largely takes place in a Norfolk fishing village called Bryde-by-the-Sea. Although a fictional place, I suspect that Bryde is in some part drawn from a similar village called Wells-next-the-Sea. Both names have a touch of irony to them, as neither are actually by or next to the sea at all, but separated from it by a good stretch of silted up land, the "Saltings" of the title. Much of the plot of the story is complicated by the fact of having to get around these parts by means of various boats and ferries, minding the tides as they ebb and flow. There's a map as a frontispiece to help understand the lay of the land, at least in my Harper Perennial edition, although it was more helpful in a general way than on specifics.

The cast of characters include native Norfolk residents, but also a handful of newcomers. Much of the story revolves around the situation of John and Hilary Pansel, who had come to the little community with high hopes of relaunching John's career as an artist a decade or so before, but whose dreams have faded a bit overtime. Dallas Fiennes, a successful novelist, has also come there to work on his latest project, and it is he who manages to drive a wedge between the two. When someone is murdered, as of course someone must be, outsider and native alike are put on the list of suspects.

The novel builds slowly and psychologically, and it occurred to me that for that reason alone it's easy to see that it is not of our era. You have gotten a long way into the book before any murder has occurred. It is both a portrait of a village and a study of a marriage in addition to being a mystery. Another thing that struck me as atypical is that there is a regular hierarchy of policemen on the scene--just when you think you've reached the guy in charge, there is still another someone above him.

In trying to learn a little more about Wade and about the Saltings, I was surprised to come across a piece in tribute to Jacques Barzun, who I know and admire from his encyclopedic work From Dawn to Decadence. Barzun was also a crime novel aficionado and in fact wrote extensively on the genre. As Hugh Van Dusen wrote in a little centennial tribute:

 At one lunch I mentioned that I had just read Mist on the Saltings by Henry Wade, which had been published in England in 1933. Jacques proceeded to give me an exact plot summary and a précis of its narrative virtues — a remarkable feat of memory, even for Jacques.

I don't read as many of the Golden Age style mysteries as I once did, but looking at the other authors listed at the back of this edition, I am reminded of how much I enjoyed the high level of intelligence and craft displayed in them. It's nice to revisit the era when they were prevalent now and again.


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