I have read some of Josephine Bell’s later novels and to be honest I had not found them overly enthralling reads. The Trouble in Hunter’s Ward (1970), for instance, was dire. So I was not too sure how today’s read would pan out. I was banking on the fact this is an earlier work and hoping that this would make it a stronger read. Let’s find out…
Even though I know Bell started her writing career in the 1930s, it always still manages to surprise me. I just can’t seem to picture it and her choice of writing style may be one of the reasons why. Martin Edwards, in the introduction to this latest reprint, notes that The Port of London Murders ‘reads like a pre-cursor to the type of post-war detective fiction that was more realistic in mood than the typical interwar whodunit.’
Another thing which surprised me was the fact that Bell had begun her writing career before her husband’s death. He in fact helped her with some of the plots of her first books. It was only after book 3, did he die in a car accident, (which also killed the wife of one-time crime novelist Alan Clutton-Brock). For some reason I always thought Bell started writing when she became a widow, but perhaps it was just that the financial recompense became more important once this had happened? After all, she could not accept her first invitation to the Detection Club as she could not afford it. Thankfully Martin has straightened this all out for me!
Today’s read has something of an unusual structure. There is no one single crime to focus on from the get-go. Instead Bell introduces us to a series of different disparate characters and the lives they are leading. In these introductions small events occur including accidents which entail the paths of certain characters colliding. It remains to be seen whether these collisions work well or ill. In some ways you can see it creating a chain reaction. From accidents to chance happenings we jump into suicide, disappearances and straight up murder. Running through and intersecting everyone’s lives is a criminal enterprise, like the Thames snaking it’s way through London, whether they know it or not. The reader, early on in the book, will get some idea of what this enterprise is concerned with, and I felt Bell’s handling of it seemed more nuanced in the main, than it has done in the hands of other writers. Sorting out the good guys from the bad takes time for the reader, with some decisions being made easily, whilst with other characters you feel the need to reserve judgement until you have better information.
In conjunction with the unusual structure, the police investigation also deviates from the norm of having a central detective to focus on. The crimes which occur are tackled from more than one angle, so therefore by more than one team of police officers and it is interesting to see how their work eventually ties up together. Moreover, I would say as the plot unfolds, it becomes one of cat and mouse between the police and the guilty parties. Even when some of the weak links in the enterprise give way, it still takes some effort for the police to round up all the individuals involved.
In addition, Martin also comments in his introduction, on the way the text works as a ‘fascinating social document,’ which ‘provides us with a window into ordinary lives that is unusual in fiction published during the Golden Age.’ He goes on to say that:
‘Her focus was on the working class environment on the edge of the River Thames, a community she portrays with insight and compassion.’
This is a sentiment I very much agree with and I felt in particular Bell was very good at depicting the pressures and difficulties of being a doctor in a low-income district and the limits to what good they could do when they were having to fight against poverty, as a key factor in the poor health of their patients. Even her most destitute and peripheral characters are well-crafted and are not a sweeping generalisation.
Like in later books such as London Particular (1952) by Christianna Brand, fog is an ever-present character in the book, which poses a deadly danger for those trying to work and navigate on the Thames. The river itself equally plays an interesting and integral part in the book, which I enjoyed.
All in all I would say this is a slow burning story and normally this is not my sort of read, but I found the more I read, the more it grew on me and to date I would say it is easily my favourite Bell novel.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)