Lonely Magdalen (Henry Wade)

By Henry Wade

First published: UK, Constable, 1940

Blurb (UK)

Wade - Lonely Magdalen.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

LONELY MAGDALEN is much the most ambitious Wade yet written.  Long and crowded with incident, it combines emotional story-telling with the close reasoning and technical complexity of a roman policier.

In a corner of Hampstead Heath the body of a woman is found near a hedge.  She has been strangled, and from her appearance and clothing she is judged to have been a low-grade prostitute.

Who was the woman?  Where did she live?  At what time was the crime committed?  Was anyone seen near the spot?  These and other problems are patiently solved, and never has Henry Wade handled with greater mastery the inescapable methods of police investigation.

But having got so far, the detectives get no further.  They seemed faced with a hopeless lack of evidence.  Young Inspector Poole with his faithful helper Sergeant Gower, is left to follow any line of enquiry which may happen to occur to him.  He gradually finds out that the dead woman was not always Bella Knox from a drab lodging in Kentish Town, but had sunk to hopeless poverty from a very different life.

The narrative now swings back twenty-five years and we have the story behind poor Bella Knox and learn why she came to grief.  This section is a fine piece of straight novel-writing, with a glowing love-story, vivid war scenes and a lavish social background.

With the third and last section we return to Poole, still doggedly on the murderer’s track.  He and Gower intensify their efforts, which at last bring a culprit to justice.

My review

Julian Symons, H.R.F. Keating, and other modern critics said the detective story was “innocent”.  Wade is well aware of the more sordid sides of life. The victim is a prostitute, strangled on Hampstead Heath, and the suspects are to be found among her clients. Detection of the police procedural variety (far more credible than that of Crofts, and livelier) reveals the woman’s antecedents, which are described in a second section reminiscent of Galsworthy, Dickens, or Anthony Berkeley (Murder in the Basement). This leads the detection in another direction — and the solution is revealed. Although there is some clever misdirection, the solution is profoundly anti-climactic and inartistic, for it turns two-thirds of the novel into padding. The novel can only be termed satisfying if the solution revealed in the final paragraph is the correct one, which makes Poole complicit in police corruption—another example of Wade’s supremely cynical ideas about justice.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 19th May 1940):

Lonely Magdalen is first-class, patient police investigation of strangled prostitute on Hampstead Heath, divided by biographical flash back to victim’s past.  Police work has quite a Freeman Wills Croft touch.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 25th May 1940):

The sole doubt about Mr. Wade’s new story, Lonely Magdalen, is caused by the fact that his romantic narrative is less plausible than his description of the police at work.  A woman is found murdered on Hampstead Heath.  There are only two main suspects and Mr. Wade has returned to the use of his admirable device of forcing the reader to hesitate between them.  After the first part of the story he has a “flash-back” which tells us about the early life of the victim.  The idea is not new and the story would have been improved by its shortening.  But when we return to the investigations of Inspector Poole the novel again becomes absorbing and convincing.  Mr. Wade is always convincing about how the police work and feel and his novel is especially welcome since in his last book he insisted on departing from the conventional setting of a problem in favour of a thriller, which seemed a pity, since he is so good at problems.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 25th May 1940):

Henry Wade is the reverse of Miss Cannan, a natural detective writer aspiring to write novels.  Lonely Magdalen is in three parts; the first and last deal with the murder of a prostitute on Hampstead Heath and the solution of the crime by Inspector Poole—orthodox police-work in Henry Wade’s accomplished style: the centre section is a piece of self-indulgence for the author, who lets his imagination loose on the prostitute’s antecedents like a best-seller.  I always admire Henry Wade, but some people may find the book too long and others too much of a hotch-potch.


Sydney Morning Herald (J.J.Q., 27th December 1947):

Lonely Magdalen, with its complex plot, its gallery of all sorts of people and its leisurely telling reminds one agreeably of Wilkie Collins.  Its starting point is the autumn of 1939, when a streetwalker was found strangled on Hampstead Heath.

The inquiry who she is, winds back over the years to the first world war and involves county families, of which the members shrinking from the stain of publicity, require tactful handling by Inspector Poole.  Many other policemen help or hinder and they are as individual as the gentry and the lowly, the baronet, the pubkeepers, landladies, bookmakers, race touts, and servants whose testimony is needed to piece together the life of Bella Knox.

The form is interesting: the story of her girlhood and marriage is inset between the long search for her identity and exhaustive detective processes leading to the conviction of her murderer.