Review: The Mist on the Saltings by Henry Wade

‘The Mist on the Saltings’ begins by introducing you to the three main characters of the novel: Hilary and John Pansel and the small village of Bryde-by-the-sea (a portrait of which is given as the Frontispiece, for your assistance in pondering the murder).

John Pansel, who had been a promising painter before the war, sustains a severe abdominal injury in the conflict, and meets Hilary Keston in the hospital where she nurses him. Having been dismissed as ‘cured’ – despite chronic and debilitating after-effects from his wound – he passes a year in a state of depression before meeting Nurse Keston again. They fall in love and spark a renewed sense of hope and possibility in each other. They get married, move to the small, but artistically satisfying, village of Bryde, and settle down to an idyllic life of love in a cottage, happy to brave the temporary deprivations, in the certainty of John’s eventual fame and fortune.

Except, sadly, optimism, energy and hope very rarely win over life’s grimmer realities. The Great Depression, as well as John’s ongoing illness and personal depression, wears away at their dreams and ambitions like the eroding tides, until, ten years later, the couple are struggling, with little money, few close companions and a growing sense of bitterness.

And then, Dallas Fiennes, a rakish author of surpassing selfishness and a skeleton or two – who visits the village periodically in order to write – becomes bored and sets his sights on Hilary.

(and after all:

“…it was not to be supposed that any real danger existed… in the twentieth century – in England – above all, in Norfolk – injured husbands did not apply the melodramatic principles of the unwritten law” )

The book’s chief merits are good writing, characterisation and atmosphere. The saltings of Bryde are an important part of the plot, with their elusive beauty, so impossible to capture –

“…you dashed for your brush and palette, mixed up your colour wash, looked again – and behold, the sand had become grey, the saltings yellow, the sea purple”

–  illustrate John’s perpetual striving and hopes; and just as perpetual frustration. And the mists themselves, thick, shrouding and treacherous, hang heavy over the book, inspiring murder and concealing the truth.

The main characters are well-drawn, with their motivations clear and the rather bullying and irritable Inspector Lamming was an interesting change of pace from the polite blankness of Inspector Poole.

Recommended, for a good, atmospheric read.

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4 thoughts on “Review: The Mist on the Saltings by Henry Wade

  1. Well, this sounds fabulous. As I think I said the other day, this is one of the Wades I have in paperback and so it’s a novel I’ll definitely be getting to in the next, oh, year. I’m afraid I can offer little in the way of insight until then, but will say that your statment here that sadly, optimism, energy and hope very rarely win over life’s grimmer realities might be the most perfect encapsulation of what little I’ve read of Wade so far.

    He’s not grim in the sense of depressing, but there’s an element of the post-war loss of innocence which pervades tonally in a way that I’m not sure I’ve picked up in others writing in the same era. And, of course, I’m basing this purely on his debut novel, too, but now you’ve mentioned it I can see how it feels a very deliberate choice on his part to convey this as very much part of the milieu in which his caharacters exist.

    Of course, everything else he wrote will now turn out to be a Wildean comedy of manners and I’ll look like an idiot for saying this…

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    1. I agree about the tone and there’s a quote early in the book which illustrates this:

      “… John’s reputation as a painter had been firmly established before the war came to smash everything that was beautiful and of good repute in the world.”

      And while this is Hilary’s point of view, I suspect that it echoes the author.

      From what other books of Wade’s that I’ve read, this subtle grimness is a constant background – albeit not so strongly steeping the book as it is in this one – and I think you’re right that it’s unusual (though of course, I haven’t read nearly enough examples to be sure).
      Still, many other similar-era detective novels that I’ve read, seem to make a deliberate choice to be detached a little from the war – either not mentioning it or being matter-of-fact about it – having it as a plot point, say, or having military characters – e.g. the Pompous Major – with no sense of deep scarring.

      Not sure if that’s because ‘the typical detective novel reader’ didn’t want to dwell on such things, or the author didn’t: escapism, after all, is not just for the reader. Then again, perhaps there was a general feeling that it was extraneous to the genre; or perhaps, the very nature of the detective novels is a reaction to the war, a, usually light-hearted, way of controlling death and meting out horrors only to the deserving.

      But I think other people have written on this stuff rather more coherently and knowledgably than this.

      Anyway, I think you’re safe from looking like an idiot when you’ve read more Wade – though not without humour, I can’t recall any characters in the other books suggesting, for example, that they’ve ‘nothing to declare but their homicidal tendencies’.

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      1. I think “meting out horrors only to the deserving” is a fine way of putting it. The detective genre’s place in history is always going to be a difficult one to assess, but there’s absolutely that sense of closure that is essential to such plots — if you want things left unfinished, go and read literary fiction!

        And how have I never noticed that the typical military character is usually the Old Pompous General? That’s a superb piece of insight, especially as if it’s not him it the Dashing Captain Who Saw Action But Is Never Asked About It. There’s a sort of conspiracy of silence in the genre around this, isn’t there? Sure, the contemporary audience wouldn’t have needed it dwelt upon, but it’s telling that I can only think of Dermot Kinross in The Emperor’s Snuff-Box by Carr as (one of?) the only wartime character whose actions therein are ever explicitly commented upon in any meaninglful way…and even then very little is made of it.

        Hmmm, you’ve got me thinking now…

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