By: Maggie Joel
Publisher: Felony & Mayhem
Publication Date: May 2012
Reviewed by: Ellen Feld
Review Date: May 20, 2012
If you don't want to know how the story you're about to read ends before you read it, then you may not want to read this review because there's really no way to review The Second-Last Woman in England without giving away the ending. You see, the prologue tells us exactly what happens to the protagonist of the book, Mrs. Harriet Wallis. On a grey November morning in 1953, she was the second-last woman in England to be hanged. On Coronation Day, 1953, she shot her husband Cecil six times in front of several witnesses. The question is, why? To learn the answer, you must read the book. And after reading the prologue, you'll want to read the book to quench your curiosity.
Chapter one picks up the pervious year, nine months before the murder in September of 1952. All seems well in the upper middle class Wallis household. Harriet is busy interviewing Miss Jean Corbett, a possible new nanny for her two children, Julius and Anne. When the police come to the house to ask Mr. Wallis about one of the employees at the shipping company where he works, Harriet becomes curious and listens in from another room. It seems that the employee, Mr. Rocastle, had been embezzling from the company and has now disappeared. What might Cecil know?
The story progresses through the next nine months, telling bits and pieces of Harriet's story, mixed in with those of Jean and Cecil's. We meet Harriet's brothers Simon and Freddie, and the tangled lives they've lived. There are numerous flashbacks, telling of Harriet's past travels and experiences, as well as Jean's horrific life during the War.
The author does a nice job of setting the pace and bringing the reader into the post-war 1950's, where rationing was necessary and many people struggled amid the bombed out buildings of London. While most of the country struggles, Harriet and Cecil attend frequent parties held for the upper tier of society and worry about seemingly irrelevant things. Jean does her best to care for the Wallis's two children and rebuild her life and gets little to no help (emotional or financial) from her employers.
Wondering what made Harriet, a seemingly happy, well-to-do wife, kill her husband in cold blood will keep the reader involved through the end of the story. However, while the story was well-written, it was hard to like Harriet, who seemed rather cold and empty. Her treatment of Jean, while appropriate for the time period, added to the dislike of her character. It left a bit of a void in the story that keeps the reader from truly caring. In addition, although there are a few twists and turns and the reason for the murder might be unexpected, there wasn't a big, suspenseful buildup, but rather a slow progression to the end that kept the book from being truly satisfying.
Quill says: While not a nail-bitter, The Second-Last Woman in England was a fun mystery story for a lazy afternoon read.