I chose to read this novel as part of the Crime Fiction of the Year challenge hosted by Past Offences and this month’s selected year was 1976. However, Josephine Bell (real name Doris Bell Collier) has been on my radar for some time; an author who was also a doctor and helped to found the Crime Writer’s Association. Like writers such as Ngaio Marsh she had a long writing career which took off in the 1930s, in the heyday of the Golden Age of Detection and tailed off in the 1980s. Setting a murder mystery in a hospital was hardly new as this novel had been preceded by authors such as Christianna Brand who chose such a setting in her novel Green for Danger (1944). However, I think her experience and knowledge of hospitals, due to being a medical professional does add an increased sense of verisimilitude to the novel, though this in itself may be a double edged sword.
The Trouble in Hunter Ward (1976) begins with Miss Hallett a retired nurse going into the hospital to the above mentioned ward. This is no ordinary ward containing a mixture of private patients and patients who are deemed to require more special attention, the latter category ranging from a boy with leukaemia to a young woman with appendicitis and hysteria. However, this ward has become the centre of a strike, headed by the porter Joe Wells, who sees it as a symbol of corruptness, with paying patients apparently queue jumping and receiving better attention at the expense of NHS patients at the hospital. Consequently, the staff of Hunter Ward have to use emergency measures to obtain food for the ward, clean laundry and extra personnel. At such a chaotic time it is easy for a murderer to operate…
As the blurb indicates Miss Hallett is our murderer’s victim of choice and even without the blurb, descriptions such as this, suggest that Miss Hallett isn’t going to be alive for long:
‘She won’t be easy… she was a brilliant nurse in her day and that was over sixty years ago. She could have been what they used to call ‘Matron’ of one of the great teaching hospitals, but her nature let her down. No one could stand her tongue, her bad temper, her slanders about staff…’
True to form even in a couple of days she has spread unpleasant rumours about one of the consultants and taunted a drug addict nurse. But Miss Hallett’s death is not the end and other acts of malice occur, along with a suicide. And to be honest that’s it. The police are called in and after a few more violent acts the guilty are apprehended.
This was not an enjoyable book to read and it appears that Bell’s desire to portray the working lives of those who work in a hospital, overpowers the detective/murder side of the story, meaning the middle of the book has a lack of focus and the solution to the crime is contrived and uncomfortable at the same time. Moreover, if this had been a solution to say a Ruth Rendell novel, it would have been more sensitively and powerfully done, with the psychological aspect being fully explored and not just dumped unceremoniously in front of the reader 3 pages before the end. Even worse after depicting a fairly horrific situation the novel attempts to end on a happy note with two of the characters’ honeymoon, which came across as absurd and incongruous. I think it tries to be a social problem detective novel highlighting many problems in education, social work, medicine and mental health, yet these elements do not work with the detective/crime component of the novel and although they tend to dominate the novel at times in a rather descriptive fashion, they are not explored in any critical or engaging manner.
I don’t know if the poor quality of this book is because it was written at the end of her career and that some of Bell’s earlier novels were better. If you’ve read anything by Josephine Bell, I would be interested to hear your thoughts.