The Division Bell Mystery (1932) by Ellen Wilkinson

Source: Review Copy (British Library)

This book is a quite the first for the British Library Crime Classics series, not simply because it is a new author to their list, but their first vintage mystery author who was also an MP. Wilkinson was in fact one of the first women to become a member of parliament and her one off mystery novel was brought to the Library’s attention by another Labour MP called Rachel Reeves, who came across it whilst researching into the history of women in parliament and it is Reeves who writes the preface for this reprint. Her reprint looks at Wilkinson’s life, painting in the broad strokes as well as some touching personal details, such as the time when ‘a group of Conservative MPs, distressed at how little care she took of herself, bought her an electric cooker.’ Comments are also made on how Wilkinson’s life as an MP influenced the milieu and characters in her novel.

Martin Edwards then follows this up with an introduction which looks at ‘Politics in Golden-Age Detective Fiction’, dismantling the various stereotypes in this area, especially the idea of all vintage crime fiction being ultra-right wing. His introduction also takes in a look at the politicians who wrote mystery fiction, mystery writers aided by political approval and politicians who were keen mystery novel readers, before moving onto politicians as victims in vintage crime novels and mystery novels set in Parliament. Martin is intelligently concise, providing a mixture of well-known and obscure authors and titles, a balance I particularly enjoyed.

Wilkinson certainly sets herself a challenging debut mystery novel, giving the reader an impossible crime, no less, set one evening at the House of Commons. However we are first introduced to Robert West, a parliamentary secretary to the Home Secretary and as the division bell strikes at the stroke of 9pm, MPs milling about in the corridor are shocked to also hear a gunshot taking place in one of the private dining rooms. The victim is a wealthy American financer, over in England to organise a governmental loan and initially the scene suggests that the victim committed suicide, as the gun is next to the body, no one came out of the room after the shot was fired and the windows were locked from the inside, yet of course we all know sooner rather than later that this opinion will switched to murder. Given that the victim was a guest of West’s superior, he is soon involved in the case, not least because he is also one of the first people at the scene of the crime. At first he works alongside Inspector Blackitt, from Scotland Yard, but as West gets deeper and deeper into the case, to which there are secondary and even tertiary crimes, his loyalty to his employers causes him to pull away and play a lone hand, before confiding in some similarly minded allies.

Overall Thoughts

As Martin writes in his introduction this is a debut novel which does bear the hallmark weakness of such a first publication. In some ways I think it is best to get these issues out of the way first, as there are lots of other things which recommend this book, but I think readers should come with appropriate expectations. First of all I have mentioned this is a locked room mystery, yet I don’t think this is a mystery to read primarily for that aspect of the plot. The final solution works and has a nice appropriateness in one respect, but in many others I can see it annoying locked room aficionados. The investigation does not tackle the how of the crime, which is only given to the reader as a done deal in the final pages and in some ways this issue does reveal another weakness, which is Wilkinson’s handling of the police element in the book. So keen is she to immerse her readers in her political milieu, that Blackitt gets pushed off the page for quite some time, working in the dark, as of course West and his cohorts are very minimalist in the information they give him, concerned that he wouldn’t deal with the sensitive secrets in quite the right manner. Incidentally I also feel Wilkinson’s gives herself too large a cast to handle when it comes to the characters who finally uncover the truth behind the murder. Consequently I think some of the peripheral characters we meet in the opening chapters become underused, replaced by another set of characters, only then for the original ones to appear at the denouement. I didn’t think this was the most effective approach for the book as a mystery novel and it would have been nice if Don Shaw, one of these early peripheral characters had more of a role.

The flaws out of the way, let’s crack on with the positives. It is not surprising that Wilkinson scores full marks for her choice of setting, one she knows so well, and more importantly can vividly bring to life on the page. For modern readers there is a great deal of social history to be derived from this, yet because it was written contemporary to publication, it does not suffer from the info-dump effect or sound like a non-fiction historical tome. More history as living theatre really. Also importantly Wilkinson does not use the novel as a soap box to white wash parliament and MPs, nor to criticise her tory opponents excessively, though she is not above a bit of poking fun of the political world. When reading her depiction of parliamentary life there are points at which you feel very little has changed and then there are other times where things seem starkly different to now. I don’t think anyone setting a mystery novel in today’s political climate, for instance, could get away with the sentiment that: ‘The meagre Parliamentary salary barely sufficed for the necessities of even such a comparatively frugal bachelor as he was.’ We also get this prescient comment from West that: ‘we ought to film this place […] would any of us ever make a speech again if we could see how funny we look when we are doing it?’ Readers who have also come across the old BBC comedy series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, will probably also find a number of parallels in the sentiments espoused, as Wilkinson also shows the civil servants as the figures who actually hold the power.

Of course as a female MP, Wilkinson does bring up the issue of women working as professionals and how they are perceived by their male counterparts. Yet again this is not overdone and I think she achieves her points in a delightfully tongue in cheek manner. The best passage for me had to be this one:

‘The attitude of Robert West to the modern young woman was typical of that of a very young man. He preferred the intelligent woman. He liked to be seen about with one who was making a name for herself. But while he was interested in her he expected her to put her own affairs into the background and devote herself to his. When she was no longer needed she might be permitted to pick up her own threads again, but she must not trouble him. This he called allowing a woman to live her own life.’

It is the sort of passage which makes you laugh at the absurdity of it, only to then leave you wondering how much has society actually changed. Whilst you might be worrying that West becomes an insufferable nit wit, I think Wilkinson keeps this element in check and often punctures West’s confidence either by the events or people he faces, or through narrator comment.

The cast in the main is male dominated, yet through her narrative voice, I think Wilkinson does manage to transmit a critique of masculinity, again in response to women who defy traditional notions of respectable femininity, such as when West has to confront his frustration at Annette’s, (the victim’s granddaughter), disinclination to break down or express her emotions:

‘Quite irrationally he wanted to shake her, to break through her defences, to assert in some way his sheer masculine superiority. Angry with himself he yet found himself rapidly thinking of some way to impress her, to ruffle this cool indifference.’

There are only three female characters in the book, yet I think Wilkinson manages to convey a great deal of variety through them nevertheless.

Whilst the concept of placing a murder within parliament is not executed perfectly in this book, I think Wilkinson does make a good job of it overall. In particular what I particularly enjoyed was how the location added a time pressure to the case being solved, with oppositional MPs bringing up awkward questions during parliamentary sessions, questions which West and his team worry they cannot answer in time for the given deadlines.

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): During a special event

22 comments

  1. “I don’t think anyone setting a mystery novel in today’s political climate, for instance, could get away with the sentiment that: ‘The meagre Parliamentary salary barely sufficed for the necessities of even such a comparatively frugal bachelor as he was.’ ”

    In 1932 an MP’s pay was £360 p.a. It had been £400 from 1911 – when pay for MPs was first introduced – to 1931, so Wilkinson and her colleagues weren’t in it for the money. £200 p.a. was the average wage at the time; so it was a middle class income.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One might hope that the British Library will consider re-issuing Stanley Hyland’s Who Goes Hang?, which is also concerns a murder in the Houses of Parliament,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the review – a nice preview of an upcoming title. I suspect I feel ambivalent, but I generally can’t resist collecting these BL reprints on my kindle! 🤓

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This really strikes me as one of your best reviews. It was a pleasure to read and several of your observations really stuck with me. This sound like a book that would be interesting to read for very different reasons than I’m typically drawn to.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. She does have rather a large cast of characters, and it is a little unusual the way West ropes people into the investigation and then we are not actually told they have even done anything until the solution is given. But the large cast adds to the charm as a description of parliament.

    I agree the author’s female viewpoint was noticeable but not overdone, even to a man like me. I thought the description of West’s approach to women highly amusing.

    Liked by 1 person

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