He returned to his seat and picked up a glass of champagne at the exact moment that his wife, Mrs Harriet Wallis, entered the room and shot her husband six times in the chest. All of the witnesses later recalled that at the precise moment Mrs Wallis had entered the room, the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth had stepped out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

The Second-Last Woman in England is the new novel by Watford-born writer Maggie Joel, about the fictional second-last woman in the country to be hanged.

It is set in London in 1953 and tells the story of the well-to-do Wallis family, exploring the depths of emotions that are present in every family but which rarely surface – and what happens when they do.

“She is entirely fictional,” says Maggie of Harriet Wallis. “During some research I came across two very separate instances of women being convicted of murder and then hanged in Britain in the mid-1950s and the idea of this – of the state exacting such a punishment – really struck me. It seemed so barbaric, so archaic.

“Many people in Britain are aware of the Ruth Ellis case – in 1955 she was the last woman to be executed. It’s a famous case not simply because she was the last but because she was a glamorous young woman who lived what appeared to be an exciting and enviable lifestyle. The idea that the state could put her to death shocked a lot of people at the time – and probably went some way towards ending capital punishment for women in the UK.

“It started me thinking – how shocking would it be if our murderer was a very respectable, very well-to-do society wife and mother? And there was my opening scene.”

Writing the book required a vast amount of research – Maggie read social history from the immediate post-war period to the mid-1950s, archive copies of The Times, court reports from the Old Bailey, and she also talked at length to her mother and aunt, who both had first-hand experience, and very detailed knowledge, of that period.

“The challenge for me was to capture the flavour of that era,” says Maggie, who has moved from Rickmansworth to Sydney, Australia, “through the lives and actions of this single household. The most significant event during those years was the Coronation, it provides the perfect backdrop.”