Death at Wolf's Nick: The Killing of Evelyn Foster

Written by Diane Janes

Review written by Judith Sullivan

Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.

Death at Wolf's Nick: The Killing of Evelyn Foster
Mirror Books
RRP: £7.99
Released: May 18 2017

Death at Wolf’s Nick is powerful feminist take on an eight-decade plus old murder at the furthest tip of northeast England.

The Wolf’s Nick story has been told before but Janes imbues her book with a passion for securing justice for the victim Evelyn Foster, just 28 when she was immolated in or near her own taxi-cab.

It is easy to see what drew Janes to the story – inherent drama, historical significance and the chance to indict some of the bumbling cops who oversaw an amateurish and ultimately futile investigation into Foster’s death. And there’s a great pearl in this particular oyster – Foster survived for a few hours after the inferno and herself helped the police in their inquiries.

The events occurred on a frigid January night in 1931. Evelyn was from a family of local businesspeople and herself an entrepreneur in the Uber mode. She made her money ferrying friends and strangers to and from in this lonely section of Britain nudging the Scottish border.

On the fateful night, Evelyn took on a male passenger – that much is known. The subsequent events are muddled – did they have an argument, where had he come from, where was he from? Also unclear is whether he’d been alone or in company on arrival at Evelyn’s home town northeast of Newcastle Otterburn (yep, that’s the name, it’s not made up). Her car was burned to a messy bundle at Wolf’s Nick, a strip of road not far from the town. Some local good Samaritans saw the inferno and got help. It was however too late to save her; but soon enough for her to talk to a doctor in her own bedroom. Sadly her mother was also at the bedside, having shod her bossiest of bossy boots. Janes makes much of Mrs. Foster’s interruptions and judgmental comments.

In a more enlightened age, Mrs. Foster mère would have been ushered out and police officers in. None of this happened and Evelyn died, having lost her sight and any chance to point the police toward her actual killer or his or her motive.

The main villain in Janes’ piece is the lead copper Fullarton Janes, such a clueless toff that in another context, his buffoonery would’ve been comical. In actuality, Janes suggests, his incompetence lies behind what must be extreme frustration among any living Foster family members since then. A good old boy and army captain, James is portrayed by Janes as being much more interested in self-aggrandisement and external plaudits than in justice for the Foster family.

The local Bobbies fare better in this book, portrayed as diligent and hard-working despite James’ insistence on time-wasting efforts. They took dozens of statements and scoured the environs but were unable to locate any suspect or unearth any motive to kill the young woman.

Janes is a beautiful writer and adept at adding context for a generation of readers familiar with TV programmes like CSI or New Tricks. The strongest sections of the book are when she looks at policing itself and how this particular investigation fits within the evolution of policing in the UK in the last century. She also takes sure aim at tabloid newspapers that in 1931 had  no qualms about deriding and even mocking hard-working Coppers. She raises the option that misleading headlines and non-righteous indignation from the yellow press actually hampered the constables’ efforts and contributed to the real assailant walking free. The more things change, eh?

By the time the jury of eight men assembled a month later for the inquest; James had made up his mind that Evelyn was at the root of her own fiery demise. She was either a slut or an arsonist, or so perturbed by menstrual hormones as to be irresponsible. Janes not surprisingly rubbishes the dafter of the claims and lets us decide for ourselves whether Evelyn’s financial independence coupled with sexual naiveté was a motivating factor for her killer.

The jury was having none of that silliness, thankfully, and handed in a verdict of wilful murder. The jury was culled from the local population. Many jurors knew Evelyn and refuted the harlot or harpy or insurance fraudster subtext mentioned in court.

All of which speaks well of these guys, but does not provide a name or a profile of the killer. And neither has been pinpointed yet - 86 years on. Janes has a theory and a name but her possible perpetrator is long gone himself. It is an intriguing theory and one the reader wishes could’ve been pursued in a timely fashion a la White Mischief.

The Killing at Wolf’s Nick is with us still, as is 1977’s The Burning of Evelyn Foster by one Jonathan Goodman. Janes’ work, including an exhaustive bibliography, is a step in the direction of gaining justice for the young lady, whom I suspect was just in the wrong car at the wrong time and ran into a seriously wrong person.

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