Lonely Magdalen by Henry Wade (1940)

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.

Prior Judgments – Martin Edwards @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name, Kate @ Cross Examining Crime

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2015 Bingo—Read one historical mystery [Part II is a flashback to 25 years prior to the main story]

6 thoughts on “Lonely Magdalen by Henry Wade (1940)

  1. This one’s been reprinted recently in the edition you show above, but I still hope for a meaningful reprint of Wade’s work in the near future. So much of the range of styles and approaches he took sounds so good, and it’d be great to have him in bookshops again for plebs like me to be able to afford.

    And, since we’ve had eight or nine John Dickson Carr reprints in the last few years and have more on the way, I now believe that anything is possible…

    1. I would love to have more Wade. I find them occasionally but they’re usually pretty expensive or in poor condition. I snagged a good copy of The Litmore Snatch — still hunting for the rest. I’m surprised that House of Stratus or Ramble House hasn’t reprinted at least a couple ☹️.

  2. JFW

    Thanks for the review. 😊 I got the impression it’s an inverted mystery novel, and as such avoided it. But it sounds like a normal mystery?

    I got most of my Wade novels on Kindle, through my local Amazon store – I think the catalogue is still available? But might not be for long, as they’re under the Murder Room imprint.

    1. Definitely not an inverted mystery. Police procedural so “normal”.

      I’m a physical book kind of person. I buy ebooks, but usually only if the physical book is not available. Here’s hoping that there are reprints in the future 😁

  3. I agree with you about the ending: left me totally frustrated too because it seemed to me that justice hadn’t been done. But perhaps that was the intention of the author that sometimes you just pick up the most convenient suspect and get it over and done with: A comment on the vagaries of the legal system.

    1. I read in several other reviews that Wade’s intent was to point out issues in British policing and system of justice at the time. And while I’ve not found any actual evidence of that, when thinking about the ending, it makes sense to me.

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