Bones in the Barrow (1953) by Josephine Bell

I tried this writer a couple of years ago, but unfortunately it was not love at first sight. The Trouble in Hunter Ward (1976) is not a book I’d recommend rushing out to buy any time at all, let alone soon. I think it probably has the lowest or one of the lowest ratings I have ever given a book on the blog. However, time has passed and occasionally I have noted other bloggers’ more positive reviews of Bell’s work, making me wonder whether I just tried the wrong book first. But it was finding a reasonably priced copy in a charity shop of this book which convinced to take the plunge and give Bell another go.

Terry Brynes is stuck on a train to waterloo, the thick yellow fog requiring the train to travel slowly and stop frequently. During the journey the fog parts for a short time, revealing a row of houses and a woman in a window. She is frantically trying to open a window, in extreme terror. Before the fog obliterates Terry’s view, the shadow of another figure is shown behind her, as she crashes to the floor. Terry and the readers fear the worst. It is from this slim starting point that our mystery is begun as other than Scotland Yard making a note of what Terry has seen, not much more can happen until the following February when some builders make the grisly discovery of some human bones on the roof of a house near the train line. This leads to the uncovering of a mysterious lodger who sold “cat” meat and of a woman who is concerned for her friend who has stopped responding to her letters. The husband of the missing friend soon becomes a prime suspect in this peculiar cold case, yet Dr Wintringham, our amateur sleuth is not convinced…

Overall Thoughts

Thankfully this was a much better read by Bell than my last one. It’s not top drawer but is certainly very readable. The opening of the book will feel reminiscent of Christie’s more famous novel, 4:50 from Paddington, though of course Christie’s novel is the later publication. Moreover, keen readers of the British Library Crime Classics series will also see some similarities between this story and Anthony Rolls’ Scarweather. However this does not mean the solution follows this pattern, as Bell goes off in her own direction. Bell tackles the difficulties of how to make a cold case interesting well, as the opening chapters have different characters encountering varying pieces of the puzzle. The case feels like it is going to go one way, up until the appearance of Dr Wintringham, who of course believes the husband to be innocent. It interests me how much more readily we believe the ideas or hunches of amateur sleuths or private investigators, more than we do policemen’s. I’m sure that is not the case in real life, but in fiction it might be that we are more used to the police being wrong, a tradition begun from detective fiction’s infancy. This makes sense in a way as if the police in fiction were super-efficient and effective and always right, there would be little need for amateur sleuths or private investigators. However I digress.

I think the only thing which prevented this book from being a really good read is the solution, as for me it required just a few too many coincidences and although there are clues to point in this direction, I think they are a little too tenuous to be satisfying. However, I do think this book has shown me that perhaps Bell is better appreciated for her earlier work and I may well give some of these titles a try in the future.

Rating: 3.75/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): In the medical field


  1. I enjoyed this one when I read it three years ago–giving it just a slightly higher rating than you have. The clues are a bit tenuous, but I did appreciate the opening when the fog clears and Byrnes glimpses the crime in progess.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I did a piece for the Guardian a while back about books based on ‘glimpses from the train’ – I could have done with this one then! I have had varied responses to Josephine Bell’s books: I think, like you, I would buy one cheaply from a charity shop…

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha it always happens that you come across the titles you need once your post or assignment is finished. I like the wide variety of topics you have covered in your guardian articles, though I’m intrigued as to how this theme came up. Was it around the time Girl on the Train came out?


      • yes it was – the Guardian always wants a current hook to hang them on, which I personally think is unnecessary and a pain, and in this case it was the book’s unexpected huge success in the USA. Of all of them I think it is the one where the most examples turned up afterwards!

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  3. I’ve recently been trying some of Bell’s Wintringham books, having read the short in the Deep Waters anthology. I thought Death in Clairvoyance and The China Roundabout were fairly meh, but I’ve just finished Death at Half-Term and thought that one was decent. (N.B. There are alternate titles for some of these, as you may know.) It may be significant that the one I liked is a relatively early one from the 1930s, where the other two are postwar.

    Liked by 1 person

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