Murder at Wrotham Hill, By Diana Souhami

This forensic study of a murder encapsulates the changing face of postwar Britain

Jane Jakeman
Saturday 15 December 2012 01:00
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Our recent past is sometimes the strangest country of all. Diana Souhami has before taken us to the 18th century Pacific and the First World War, but this study of a murder in 1946 evokes a society which now seems on the other side of the universe: a post-war existence of grinding deprivation, and a society with values above materialism amid which Britain painfully rebuilt itself.

The death of a harmless, eccentric spinster may seem unpromising material, but Souhami's painstaking account builds the victim, her murderer and their families into real people. Even the location of the murder speaks for the struggle to forge a better world, for Dagmar and her family, originally Polish immigrants, had moved to a hopeful new development in Kent, out of the smog and chaos of bomb-scarred London. Dagmar, a self-sufficient soul, had a hut built for herself.

Here she was content, a respectable spinster leading a life in many respects not far removed from that of a medieval peasant. She kept food cool outside between slabs of stone and drank rainwater. She was very careful with the little cash she had, and to save money hitched lifts with lorry-drivers to the nearest town. Nowadays this would be considered extremely risky for a lone woman, but this was a world in which petrol was scarce and people generally helpful. She always offered the drivers the equivalent of the bus fare and most of them knew and respected her. It didn't seem a dangerous procedure.

Until her strangled body was found in a hedgerow, prompting a murder inquiry in a village where the biggest crime had been selling black-market potatoes. The semi-legendary copper, Fabian of the Yard, more used to the dives of Soho and dealing with the likes of Battling Annie and Purple Lily, was brought in to help the local constabulary. Souhami devotes some time to Fabian, whom she describes as enjoying "the theatre of crime", a man of unpleasant prejudices but an acute observer who made brilliant use of the solitary clue: Dagmar's yellow string bag, discovered in a lake. This finally led to the murderer, whose biography is also explored in detail.

Fabian worked with a leading Home Office pathologist, Keith Simpson, acknowledged expert on strangulation, to bring the case to a "successful" conclusion, and the killer was duly hanged. Souhami considers the murderer's life with its long string of petty crimes and then turns to the hangman's training and experience. Albert Pierrepoint was the executioner of prisoners following the Luneberg trials of Nazi guards, where the facts emerging form a terrible back-drop to Dagmar's story. Yet even against this background of mass slaughter in the concentration camps, Souhami persuades us that the death of one seemingly unimportant woman can be opened out into a profound scrutiny, not only of the past but of human conscience. And she quotes Gandhi: An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

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