The body of a woman is found in a dark corner of Hampstead Heath. She’s been strangled, and it’s clear from her appearance that she was a prostitute. The police have a suspect, a professional thug, but all attempts to tie him to the murder come to nothing. Faced with a lack of evidence and little information to go on, the case seems to go cold. But Inspector Poole continues to investigate, and his tireless work finally pays off when with an obscure clue. That one clue leads him to the discovery that the woman who called herself Bella Knox was once someone with a very different life.
This is the fourth of Wade’s books that I’ve read, and it is by far my favorite. The plot, involving the murder of an individual far removed from what we normally see in a “traditional” British mystery, is in itself intriguing. But, the structure of the narrative is clever and absorbs your attention. The book is made up of three parts, beginning in late 1939 with the murder of Bella Knox and following the initial investigation. But then, as Poole uncovers clues that point to Bella’s mysterious past, moves back in time, in a flashback to pre-WWI, that traces Bella’s background, revealing potential suspects and unknown motives for her murder. And then, ending with Poole following lines of investigation from the present, as well as the past, before finally closing in on a killer.
The settings are grittier than usual for Wade. He gives us a London of dark, grimy streets, filled with cheap lodging houses and unfortunate inhabitants. The flashback sequence gives only the briefest of glimpses at the ordered world of the country gentry in the days preceding WWI, before it moves into the terror of battle on the Western Front.
This is an excellent police procedural, but what made it fascinating were some of the ideas that Wade plays with during the course of the story. First, there is the attitude toward the victim herself. Throughout the book, the character of Bella Knox is presented from differing perspectives. As a consequence, the view you have of her is constantly being altered, and you’re never on firm ground as to how you feel about her as the victim.
Wade also plays with the concept of class consciousness and its impact on the investigation. At one time all of the primary characters (victim and suspects alike) had very different lives, and are all in reduced circumstances, some more than others. But their treatment depends on where they now fall in the social strata, and how they got there. The primary suspect is seen as a common tough who can be pulled in, bullied by the police, and whose guilt is assumed. But, when suspicion falls on higher class individuals, while Poole continues his investigation, they are treated more sympathetically, and with very different methods.
And I’m not sure how I feel about Wade’s ending. There’s an ambiguity to it that left me slightly frustrated—mostly because I think the outcome he alludes to would have been more satisfying. But even with the ending Wade gives us, this is still a mystery very much worth reading.
Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2015 Bingo—Read one historical mystery [Part II is a flashback to 25 years prior to the main story]