In many ways Lonely Magdalen can be seen as quite modern in its approach to detective fiction and is therefore a shame that Henry Wade (real name Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher) has become such an overlooked author. Firstly the victim, as the title alludes to, is a prostitute, which is introduced to us from the start via a radio news report, stating that a dead woman has been found strangled on Hampstead Heath, 40-50 years old, medium height and a scar on the right cheek. What also makes this novel have a more modern feel is that although Inspector Poole features predominantly in the investigation, many other officers such as Chief Inspector Beldam (whose surname is also weirdly an archaic word for a malicious old woman) also make a significant contribution to solving the case and therefore has similarities with the later police procedurals. Something I enjoyed when reading the novel was the ironic or satirical moments in the narrative voice such as when the radio news report about the dead woman finishes, the next programme to be aired is ‘woman and her sphere today’. Another amusing instance is when various people call in with supposedly helpful information (wives with wooden legs and long forgotten sisters), which is obviously not. Although to solve this case, paying attention to the smaller instances in the early part of the novel is essential.
One of the main suspects straight away is a man called Varden, who has come down in the world from being a teacher to a bodyguard for a bookmaker. He not only knew the dead woman, identified as Bella Knox, but was also in the area at the time. Freeman Wills Crofts’ investigator Inspector French would be proud of the work that the police detectives put into trying to solve this case drawing up timetables and maps, tracing a mysterious dark saloon car and questioning transport workers. However, this is insufficient to complete the investigation, and in part two of the novel, Inspector Poole begins to look further back into Bella Knox’s life, 25 years in fact in order to see if he can find her killer. What he finds is a painful story of two country families, two sisters, a broken marriage and a woman’s fall from grace, against the backdrop of WW1. This section is told almost like a separate narrative, detailing who Bella Knox really is and how she became what she was and has parallels with the story structure and narrative voice of part two of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Study in Scarlet (1887). The third and final segment of the novel returns to the present time of the novel with Inspector Poole tracking down the key figures in Bella Knox’s past which leads to a new potential motive for her death. Yet as the investigation progresses Inspector Poole increasingly wonders whether his new leads are another dead end or a circuitous trail to the real killer.
Overall I really enjoyed this novel and would definitely read another book by Henry Wade. My only criticism is that the novel is rather cyclical and that if the person charged guilty of the murder really is the killer, then the necessity of including part 2 of the novel is rather tenuous. In addition, the ending of the novel, contrary to the more common ending of British Golden Age novels, does not leave you reassured. The reader closes the book with the unsettling thought that the wrong person might have been convicted, based primarily on external impressions and class prejudice, as this person due to their working class status receives more harsh treatment from police in comparison to the more upper class suspects. It is ambiguous what Henry Wade’s purpose might have been behind doing this, as it could be just a conservative outlook, accepted at the time, or in a similar way to Anthony Berkeley Cox, be an attempt at satirising the British police and justice system.
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