Sunday, June 16, 2024

Current Fascination: The Secret of 'Wind's End' by Herbert Asquith

I first saw a notice of Wind’s End (1924) in a catalogue at the back of another book. It was the first novel by Herbert Asquith, second son of H.H. Asquith, the Edwardian Prime Minister, and it was published one hundred years ago this month. The listing suggested the plot concerned some uncanny force in the English countryside. Wondering if it might be an undiscovered supernatural thriller, I got hold of a copy.

The scene is a village in the Cotswolds. A young semi-genteel rustic full of beer boasts that he will spend the night in a cursed field, Wind’s End, which has a prehistoric barrow crowned by an old thorn tree. There is a folk rhyme which states that no-one who goes there at night ever survives until dawn. And he does not survive: yet there are no signs of violence. There are footprints suggesting someone else was about, but they are not near him. What villainy or devilry is in play? 

There was quite a strong interest in ancient earthworks, including barrows and burial mounds, around this time: they feature in several crime and supernatural novels and stories of the Twenties and Thirties, and at first this appears to be an early example with similar antiquarian aspects. Asquith even brings in at one point an uncanny alignment of several ancient sites, like a ley.

Tom Morland, who is touring the West Country by motor, is staying at the local inn: ‘by nature he was of the exploring type, with an eye not blinkered to the odds and ends of life’. He decides to investigate, and calls in a wartime comrade, Garnet: ‘As an amateur detective he had won considerable fame in a narrow circle’. He achieves his results more by observation and intuition than strict logic. They are the typical Holmes and Watson pairing. 

 We thus have all the apparatus for a Golden Age crime story, and the village setting also has the conventional characters for this: the Rector, the local Doctor, a redoubtable lady of the manor, an eccentric recluse, and a staunch pub landlord. Other sinister incidents happen around Wind’s End, and Asquith also throws in a few more fragments of lore, including an ancestral ghost story. It’s all pleasingly familiar, yet done with a certain dash. The novel is enjoyably written, with plenty of inexplicable mystery and the usual flourishing of red herrings. which keep the reader guessing.

In order to discuss the contemporary context for the novel, it will be necessary for me to reveal the book’s trick: so do not read on if you want to find that out for yourself. For, despite the set-up, the ending would have frustrated strict readers of Golden Age crime fiction because it breaks one of the cardinal rules of the Detection Club. The explanation involves a lethal force unknown to science, wielded, furthermore, by a stock figure, the mad visionary who wants to enforce world peace by deploying a secret weapon. He has been conducting experiments nearby.

It seemed an odd theme for this author, who was then noted as a gentle poet of the pleasant rural scene, somewhat in the Georgian mode. Nor does it fit with his later novels, Young Orland (1927), an autobiographical novel about a young subaltern’s experiences in the First World War, or Roon (1929) and Mary Dallon (1932), mostly social romances. True, he had served in the Royal Field Artillery in the First World War, so presumably knew something about deploying deathly weapons over a distance. Even so, why did he decide to write a yarn about a death ray?

Herbert Asquith was the husband of Cynthia Asquith, the noted editor of ghost story anthologies and writer of ghost stories: they married in 1910 when she was 22 and he was 29. Perhaps her interest in the field was what prompted the idea of an uncanny novel. On the other hand, ghost story savants are no more enamoured of scientific novelty as an explanation than are crime buffs, and Cynthia Asquith would be well aware of that etiquette. She tended herself more towards the literary and lyrical in supernatural tales.

However, in browsing in The Long Week-End, A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 (1940) by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, I discovered some useful context for the book. Apparently, death rays of the sort wielded in the plot, were all the rage in the year just before Wind’s End was published. A somewhat colourful British inventor, Harry Grindell Matthews, claimed in 1923 to have discovered one, and was involved in well-publicised disputes with the Air Ministry and others about testing this. The newspapers liked the story and took his side, demanding action, though his demonstrations might best be described as inconclusive. Another death ray had supposedly been developed by a Sheffield University electronics professor. These claims had a receptive audience because of the recent spread of wireless, which prompted the idea that there might be other undiscovered waves or rays. Presumably this current fascination was what had given Asquith the idea for his book.

Asquith’s plot may strike the reader unaware of the context as simply a glib way to cheat in the impossible crime novel, and a deflating rationalisation (of sorts) of a supernatural shocker. But we can now see that, while he was playing with the expectations of these genres, he was also responding to a lively contemporary popular excitement. Indeed, Wind’s End is a mostly unnoticed interwar science fiction thriller, an early example of the ‘death ray’ idea, later to become such a popular device in the field.

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Cotswold Internet Books


  1. The science/supernatural mashup sounds like the sort of thing John Blackburn would try decades later.
    I went inside a famous long narrow near Avebury a few years ago and it was creepy enough even during daylight.

  2. I once created a literary "Six Degrees of Separation" chart centered on the Asquiths, using family connections, political allies, hangers-on, and lovers, male and female. I did it as something of a parlour trick for my son, and now I wish I had kept it. Anyway, thanks for the review of this new book added to my want list.

  3. "Death ray, fiddlesticks! Why, it doesn't even slow them up."

  4. There could be an interesting connection between The Garin Death Ray by Alexey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, published in 1927, and this one.