Diplomat’s Folly is set just a couple of years after the conclusion of World War II and concerns a rising diplomat, Alwyn Hundrich, who is hoping to be appointed as Ambassador to France. Unfortunately for him, it turns out that he has some skeletons in his closet that someone who knew him before the war is hoping to exploit.
When he is first contacted and offered the chance to buy some old love letters he seeks the guidance of a friend, Sir Vane Tabbard, who he tells about his indiscretion. He follows Vane’s advice that if he won’t confess all then he will need to pay up. Soon a second demand follows and Alwyn decides to enlist Vane’s son, a former army commando, to carry out the transaction for him but he meets with only partial success. And then a third request follows…
The novel is subtitled ‘A Police Novel’, though that is somewhat unsatisfactory as a description given that less than half of the novel features a Police investigation. It seems to me that Wade is not as interested in the specifics of the crime as in reflecting on how the Second World War had changed the British character.
There is a temptation to paint Wade as a purely reactionary writer pushing a view of the country sliding towards socialism and chaos because of a reckless younger generation. I don’t want to deny that those elements are in his works but I think that oversimplifies the themes and the characterizations he creates in his work.
Let’s start with the character of Alwyn, the target of the blackmail. Though we understand him to be a rising figure, he is only a few years younger than Sir Vane and his indiscretions belong to the pre-war era. He is a member of the establishment and you might expect Wade’s sympathies to be with him and yet he is presented as anything but an admirable figure having not only committed some historical indiscretions but also carrying on a clandestine affair with his best friend’s young wife.
Sir Vane is certainly a more likeable figure and tries to act according to a code of honor and yet Wade makes it clear that he is out of touch and ill-equipped to deal with post-war life. He can see that his son has returned from the war brutalized and unable to adjust back to civilian life yet he seems more focused on restoring his family home to its old glory. He certainly doesn’t seem to be able to see the imperfections of those around him. Wade may not be quite as biting in his criticism, perhaps because he belonged to that same generation, but it is certainly present.
The story he concocts is a strong one, even if it is short on opportunities for ratiocination. The first half of the novel follows the string of blackmail demands, building to an evening that will see someone found dead. The second half of the novel follows the investigation into what happened although do not expect to be taxed about who committed the crime or their motive. Nick Fuller in his review compares this second half of the novel to Crofts’ style and while I think its thematic approach gives it a very different tone, I will admit that the mechanics of the investigation can be a little timetabley.
I should probably also note that the novel commits that frustrating sin of having a murderer make their confession long before anything is actually proven against them. While this usually is a huge frustration for me, I think it just reflects that Wade is really less interested in his crime than in addressing the chief themes of his work.
If those themes sound familiar, you may be thinking that this book touches on some similar points to a Wade novel I wrote about a few months ago – Too Soon to Die. Certainly I was struck by some of the similarities though I think the themes are handled in a more nuanced and interesting way here.
Diplomat’s Folly is a novel that, while not wholly successful if judged purely as a detective story, proves interesting both in terms of its commentary on a period of transition in British society as well as in its strong character work.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: It’s by an author you’ve read & loved before (Why)