While I have intended to only write about an author once a month, it turns out that this is destined to be one of those rules that I will be routinely breaking. Heir Presumptive is the second Henry Wade novel I read this month following his later novel Too Soon to Die and I am happy to report that this was a far more pleasurably experience for me.
This book is, of course, yet another example of my beloved inverted mystery form although it is presented with a bit of a twist. As I alluded to in a Twitter post this weekend, I have struggled to think of a way to address that twist without revealing exactly what it is. Rather than risk spoiling the ride, I will simply say that while I saw it coming early in the book I felt it was beautifully executed and left me feeling extremely satisfied with the tone and balance of the book as a whole.
The novel begins by introducing us to Eustace Hendel, a man who had trained as a Doctor but was given an inheritance by a wealthy older woman he romanced that allowed him to give up his profession and pursue a playboy lifestyle. We learn that times have become hard for him and he is increasingly feeling the pinch as moneylenders are refusing further loans and he is having to make further economies in his lifestyle. Things are seeming hopeless for poor Eustace.
Then he receives an unexpected piece of news. Two of his cousins die unexpectedly in a swimming accident off the coast of Cornwall and suddenly Eustace finds himself just a few steps away from inheriting a title and a sizeable fortune. The only people ahead of his are his cousin, Captain David Hendel, and his terminally ill son, Desmond. If he can just find a way to eliminate David he is sure that he will comfortably outlive Desmond and his money problems will be over.
This novel can really be divided into three distinct phases. The first involves Eustace’s efforts to kill his cousin. This section is arguably the slowest of the three featuring a lengthy section in which Eustace goes deer-stalking yet it is also very suspenseful as we wonder how he will manage to pull this off without drawing attention to himself. The method used is perhaps not ingenious but it is gutsy and I felt the murder and its immediate aftermath was really quite chilling both for Eustace and for us.
The second phase of the novel sees Eustace initially feeling quite confident but soon he begins to realize that his inheritance may not go quite so smoothly as he had hoped and that he may need to take some further action. This phase does not go entirely as the reader may expect and sets up the novel’s really strong third and final phase.
Eustace is an intriguing creation because, unlike many murderers in inverted mysteries he is hardly a great criminal mind. For one thing, it soon becomes clear that he doesn’t really understand some of the intricacies of inheritance law and the entail of the family estates. Nor is he particularly charming or witty. Yet, as in many of the best inverted mysteries, the author does manage to make him a character you might feel a tiny amount of empathy for.
It is clear that though Eustace does do a terrible, vicious thing, he is not a natural killer. Nor is his life particularly enviable. While he perceives himself to have a positive, loving relationship it is clear to the reader that he is viewed only in terms of the material possessions he can provide for that girlfriend he is so desperate to keep. Kate compares her to Lady Macbeth and I think that comparison is really apt. Like Macbeth, by the end of the story we might almost wonder if Eustace is more victim than a villain…
As the novel goes on the reader will increasingly notice that Eustace does not have the level of control over his situation that he presumes. This manifests itself in several forms, not least the responses of other characters to Eustace. Here I feel Wade is particularly effective as his style of narration, a sympathetic third person, means that the reader will be drawing inferences from things that are taking place that Eustace is not aware of. They will know that his position is far more precarious than he realizes.
This all builds up to a smashing conclusion that works whether it comes as a surprise to you or if you have been expecting it for a while. I absolutely loved it and felt that it tied things together perfectly. Well, almost everything. There is one aspect of the story that I felt was left strangely unresolved given how often it is referred to in the course of the novel. I must say I am glad that Wade didn’t make use of that story point in the way I had feared and while it may be a little untidy, I won’t complain too much.
Finally, I must confess that the image I have used for this review does not match my edition which was the modern e-book reissue. Those Murder Room covers are so simple graphically that I couldn’t get excited about featuring one and then when I found the gorgeous one used here I couldn’t resist switching. If I am ever in a position to collect a printed copy of this, that is the cover I’d be aiming to possess…
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a trip/vacation/cruise, etc. (When)