Originally Published 1947
The even tenor of life in the little market town is disturbed at first slightly by the death of one of its best-known citizens, and then, like the surface of a pond shattered by a rising wind, increasingly as one ghastly event follows another. Terror grows because the townsfolk in their normal lives are unaccustomed to violence and less able to face the horror of it.
It is in this atmosphere that Superintendent Keller, Inspector Hendell, and Detective-Inspector Joss have to work, and into which are called Chief Inspector Myrtle and Detective-Sergeant Platt of Scotland Yard; and the reader’s attention is focused on their patient unravelling of a network of conflicted clues.
Earlier this year I discovered Henry Wade’s inverted mystery novels and, as I am prone to do when I get rather excited, went out and bought pretty much every one of his novels in ebook format expecting I would power through them. I am not entirely sure why I didn’t though I suspect that their longer page counts have been a deterrent and I find that owning a book often seems to lead to me putting it off until after I get through that stack of library books.
New Graves at Great Norne is not an inverted mystery but rather it is an example of the police procedural style of mystery that Wade is probably best remembered for. It is set in a small East Anglian port community which experiences several tragic deaths in quick succession. None of the deaths are inexplicable in themselves and, indeed, one of the striking features of the case is that each death seems to have some explanation. Yet the sheer number of deaths occurring in quite a short time frame is suspicious.
The first death appears to have been a careless accident as the vicar is found having apparently hit his head on the quay. The man who discovers his body notes a strange smell of liquor on his breath and a broken whiskey bottle in his pocket but those who knew him best were certain he never drank spirits.
The second death occurs some time later and this time the victim is a retired colonel who appears to have shot himself in his study. Once again, those who knew him best feel this is out of character given his social and religious attitudes and suspicion soon falls on his son-in-law, a spendthrift who was resented by the colonel for not working a steady job or having a reliable living of his own.
The third comes in the form of a house fire where the victim had apparently drunk himself into a stupor before knocking over a light and setting the room ablaze. This is apparently more believable given the victim was known to be an alcoholic and yet the police are skeptical that such an accident could have happened. And the killing does end there.
There are no obvious ties between the first three men killed beyond the colonel’s involvement in the running of the church and each death occurred in a different way and yet Inspector Myrtle becomes increasingly sure that not only were these not accidents but that there must be some connection between them.
The most important character in New Graves at Great Norne is not the sleuth or his victims but the town itself which feels utterly credible. Violent crime is next to unknown in the area and yet life ticks on for these characters. Few of the townsfolk make the connections between the different deaths their community has experienced and by the time of the fire the vicar’s death seems almost forgotten.
Wade makes sure to depict the various social groups and classes that comprise that community from the manual laborers and tradesmen to the squire and I think he does them justice. Each group are presented sympathetically and on those few occasions where Wade offers sharp or satirical commentary it is almost always directed at the characters who belong to the gentry.
The sleuth, Inspector Myrtle, is competent and credible and while the character is not particularly dynamic, Wade does inject some added interest by creating a gentle rivalry between the local police who have formed their own detective unit and Scotland Yard. There are no great imaginative leaps of reasoning as Myrtle embodies the model of slow and steady police work but he is competent and level-headed. You might argue that he is given a little too much information by a character later in the novel, helping him solve the case, but I think he does a good job of understanding the links between each of the characters and building up our knowledge of their movements and possible motivations.
The novel’s relatively high body count turns out to be something of a double-edged sword, certainly adding to the excitement and tension as we near the conclusion and yet the choice to present multiple victims with few links to each other inherently serves to limit our suspect pool. I am not saying that the identity of the killer is easy to guess – in fact I would say Wade hides it very effectively – but there are simply not many characters left standing near the end and few of those that are can be called really developed.
As I referenced earlier, there is an argument that might be made to suggest that Myrtle really is not responsible for solving this mystery. The reason the reader may feel this way is that he is in effect given the explanation of the motive and likely killer in conversation toward the end of the novel but that information had not been clued up until that point.
I have somewhat mixed feelings on the matter as I would certainly agree that the information comes too easily to our detective excluding the reader from piecing that story together for themselves but it should be said that plenty of detective work and intrigue remains after learning this information. The revelation of the killer’s identity was very satisfying being of the type where I couldn’t believe I had overlooked something simple. It is fair and easy to follow.
Unfortunately this satisfying conclusion does not quite outweigh some of the problems of the novel as a whole. Wade’s storytelling style is slow and deliberate but at points it verges on ponderous with little progress being made in the investigation beyond further corpses turning up for much of the novel.
The body count ends up being a barrier to developing the cast of suspects and too much of the solution is presented directly to the reader, resulting in a novel that seems to be working hard to avoid engaging the reader until close to the end. While that reveal is certainly strong enough to justify reading the book, Wade is capable of much better than this and if he is new to you I would encourage you to start with one of his other works such as the gorgeous Heir Presumptive.