Released for Death is the fifth novel I have read by Henry Wade who has fast become one of my favorite writers from the Golden Age. Part of the attraction for me is that he is one of the principal practitioners of the inverted mystery novel, the type of novel in which the reader knows the guilty party’s identity and has to figure out some other detail of the crime or how they will be caught.
Whether Released for Death constitutes an inverted mystery is perhaps a little debatable. Certainly it is not particularly mysterious as while the guilty party’s identity and reasoning are pretty clear in spite of the author not explicitly stating them until the end of the novel. Nor do we ever share the criminal’s perspective of events. I would suggest though that whether or not it fits the definition, it has enough of the same features to have similar appeal.
The story is split into two with the first half following the perspective of Toddy Shaw who is midway through a prison sentence for assault on a security guard during a robbery. He is working with a pot of boiling paste when another prisoner, James Carson, lunges at one of the guards knocking the hot liquid across Toddy’s face. Instinctively Toddy fights back and while he is pretty badly beaten he inadvertently stops a full-scale riot from breaking out.
Toddy refuses to implicate Carson in the riot but the man swears vengeance against him anyway which places the wardens in the difficult position of deciding what to do about Toddy. Though they have differing views about whether Toddy intended heroism or whether it was luck that his actions stopped the riot, the decision is made to apply to the Home Secretary for an early release which he receives. He returns home to his family and sets about trying to go straight but in spite of his best intentions his situation takes a turn for the worse and he finds he needs money quickly, leading him back down a dark path…
The second half of the novel plays out from the perspectives of the police who are investigating a brutal murder and the kindly, if somewhat naive, prison clergyman who has taken an interest in Toddy’s situation. While we do not have an exact knowledge of how a crime was committed we are aware of his innocence in the matter and the reason why he is suspected. We get to see how both the prosecution and defense view the case and follow the latter’s efforts as they try to find evidence that will prove his innocence.
One complication in the case is that Toddy refuses to give any evidence that will point directly at the guilty party on a point of honor. This creates an interesting problem for one character where they learn who is responsible but will not be able to prove it unless they can find their own proof of that person’s guilt.
It felt clear to me reading this that while Wade is writing a crime story he is also attempting to discuss social issues concerning conditions in prison, the power dynamics within the justice system and the forces leading to recidivism once a prisoner is released. It is a sympathetic portrayal that feels well measured. Toddy’s plight is not the result of one unscrupulous person manipulating a system or any personal failings but rather it reflects the realities of how difficult it can be to find steady work having a police record and how someone can fall into trouble through no direct fault of their own.
Curtis Evans in his wonderful book about Wade, The Spectrum of English Murder, suggests that while well-intentioned, the author’s tone at times appears a little condescending. I agree with Curtis that there are moments at which this clearly does come through though I appreciate that he was trying to write sympathetically about a criminal character at all. Wade attempts to write realistically gritty dialogue for Toddy and while I think he overdoes some of the “Cor!” moments a little, I think he writes with empathy and, for the most part, avoids drifting into sentimentality.
Wade explores these issues quite effectively but it is probably worth noting that he does not offer a prescription for making the system function better. Indeed the interventions of some caring authority figures acting on their own initiative may suggest that he saw the actions of caring individuals to be a stronger remedy to these problems than any specific reform. Alternatively he may have intended to illustrate the issue in the generating discussion.
Unfortunately while the first half of the novel is quite a compelling, if slow-moving, piece of character exploration the second half seems to drift. With no mystery for the reader to solve about how the crime was worked or the motivation the only question remaining is how the guilty party will be brought to justice. Wade depicts the details of police procedure very effectively but there are no real surprises for the reader and while we are made aware of what failure to find evidence would mean for Toddy, I felt the decision to adopt multiple perspectives reduced the sense of urgency and tension in this portion of the book.
Though I feel that Released for Death runs out of steam, I do think that the second half of the novel does have a few strong moments. One of my favorites relates to an attempt by Toddy’s lawyers to find a witness and get her to give a statement. Wade pitches this perfectly, building up to the moment of the interview very well and introduces some practical, realistic procedural issues that take that scene in an unexpected and interesting direction.
The problem is that moments like that one stand out because they are the exception. From the midpoint of the novel it feels pretty clear how things will be resolved and Wade offers little to surprise his readers. Instead the piece relies on the interest generated by its characters to keep readers engaged. The first half works because Toddy is an interesting and ultimately quite likeable protagonist but the second half struggles to find a character as likeable for us to care about or enjoy spending time with.