As I noted yesterday, the past couple of weeks have seen me hit a bit of a reading slump and I have found myself struggling to engage with anything I read. When I find myself in this sort of mood I inevitably end up turning to my stack of unread British Library Crime Classics novels for inspiration.
The title I grabbed from the pile is one I have been looking forward to reading for a while, The Division Bell Mystery. My reason for being interested in this is that it was written by a Member of Parliament, Ellen Wilkinson, and having a background in British politics I was interested to see how that world would be represented and used to inspire a mystery plot.
The novel takes place in a period of financial uncertainty for Britain as the nation faces a currency crisis and is looking to borrow a sizeable sum from a reclusive American financier, Georges Oissel, to prevent disaster. The Home Secretary has arranged a private dinner with him in a small room within the House of Commons, Room J, where they can hash out some of the details but during the meal he has to leave for a short period to attend a vote.
Robert West, the Home Secretary’s Personal Private Secretary is having dinner with a friend and passing the room when the Division Bell rings and a gunshot is heard. They see no one leave the room and when they open the door they find Oissel dead with his gun lying near the body giving the impression of suicide. What makes the death even more suspicious is that the rooms in which he was staying in are burgled that same evening and the Home Secretary’s batman is found killed. And then there’s the billionaire’s niece who insists that it would make no sense for him to have committed suicide when he believed a medical breakthrough for his condition was just around the corner.
The sudden death of one of the world’s wealthiest men within the House of Commons threatens to become a source of scandal for the Government and so West is tasked with trying to understand what has happened to quell the rumors and minimize embarrassment. This means he is cast in the role of sleuth and while others will contribute to discovering the solution, he is presented as a sympathetic and trustworthy figure.
Both of the introductions to the novel within this British Library Crime Classics edition comment on how fair the portrayal of this Conservative politician is given it is written by a Labour politician who was given the nickname “Red Ellen”. Certainly I think Bob is portrayed as someone who cares about discovering the truth of what happened and is doing their best to understand what is going on. At times he is portrayed as being a little naive, particularly about women, but it is clear that Wilkinson has affection for her protagonist.
I do not want to suggest that this is an apolitical novel however as there are some issues on which the author’s views are conveyed, albeit in quite a gentle and restrained tone. These passages are not the focus of the novel however being quite short and limited in number making them easy to quickly gloss over.
Where Wilkinson is at her best is in bringing to life the little details of life in Parliament and she peppers her story with lots of witty and wry remarks and observations about the lifestyles of those in government and the anachronisms and traditions of Parliament. She creates some striking and believable characters, not least the senior civil servant who clearly resents having to be responsible to any minister – I suspect many readers may be reminded of Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister although he is presented as a more serious character who might be a help or a hindrance to Robert in his investigations so expect wry amusement rather than hearty guffaws of laughter.
Turning to the murder at the heart of the mystery, the location and circumstances of the crime certainly grabbed my attention and appealed to my imagination. I do have to agree with Kate (from CrossExaminingCrime) in saying that while there is a crime that appears to be a locked room murder, readers should lower their expectations on that front. Robert pays little attention to the question of how the crime was achieved and when we discover the answer it is handed to him rather than solved by his own efforts, arguably reducing its impact on the reader.
After amusing and intriguing in its first two-thirds, the final chapters of the novel feel anticlimactic. Part of the reason is that I am not sure I can say the mechanics of the explanation to the mystery are entirely fair. When the crime scene is first described Wilkinson appears to give a definitive piece of information that rules out an explanation that ought to remain on the table. I could still enjoy the story on its many other merits but should you come to this expecting to be dazzled by how it was done I fear you will be disappointed.
While the howdunit aspects of the novel disappoint, the book is much stronger as a whodunit. Wilkinson establishes several strong candidates and though I think one comes to stand out by the time we reach that final third of the novel, I did enjoy seeing how it would play out. These aspects of the story are much more strongly clued than how the crime was done and I think they are very successful.
Sadly The Division Bell Mystery is not a perfect work though I do think it is very impressive, particularly with regards its portrayal of life within the House of Commons. It is those extra little details that help bring this setting and these characters to life and make it enjoyable to spend time in their company.
Unfortunately Robert West would turn out to only appear in this one novel. This seems a shame as he is quite an appealing lead character but before long Wilkinson would be elected as Member of Parliament for Jarrow and there would be little time for writing.
Review copy provided by publisher.