The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

Well, I guess that’s the first time in a while that I’ve read the complete fiction works of an author in such a short period… As far as I can tell, Wilkinson only wrote the two fiction books I’ve now covered on the Ramblings, and that’s a real shame. “Clash” was a stirring tale of love, politics and ideology; “The Division Bell Mystery” is a perhaps more conventional story, focusing on a murder which takes place in the House of Commons. However, Wilkinson the author shines through here too, in what is a very satisfying read.

The book is set in the House of Commons, and our main protagonist is Robert West, a good-looking young (Conservative) parliamentary private secretary, attached to the Home Secretary. It’s worth noting that the book was published in 1932, a time of financial instability in the UK (and indeed the world); and this instability is reflected in the book, as negotiations are taking place for the Government to get a loan of foreign money. Reclusive American financier Georges Oissel, an old friend of the Home Secretary, has agreed to have dinner with the latter in the House – an unusual occurrence in itself, and one that goes horribly wrong when Oissel is found dead just after the Division Bell* is rung for a vote.

Through the double clamour of Big Ben and the shrill sound of the bell rang a revolver shot.

At first, it seems like suicide; but why would such a rich man with no need to die do such a thing? Oissel’s beautiful granddaughter, Annette, is convinced that it’s murder, and soon the police, led by Inspector Blackitt, are of the same opinion. West is encouraged to investigate, assisted by his old friend Dan Shaw, a friendly reporter Sancroft, fiery Labour politician Gracie Richards, Lord Dalbeattie, and a whole host of other characters. What appears to be a locked-room mystery is complicated by a burglary on Oissel’s flat taking place at the same time as the murder, and the fact that the Government must fight off questions and challenges from the opposition whilst trying to deal with what is a very delicate situation. Will Robert solve the crime (or will, indeed, somebody else?) Will Robert stop swooning over Annette? Does Kinnaird, a close friend of Annette’s who could be in financial difficulties, know more than he’s letting on? Is the Home Secretary without guilt? And how will the Prime Minister handle the hostility from the opposing party?

“The Division Bell Mystery” is a twisty and entertaining book with an engrossing puzzle, likeable characters and plenty of red herrings. On their own, these elements alone would make it worth reading. However, where it actually excels is in the picture it gives of what it was like to be in Parliament in the 1930s. We’re so much more familiar with the whole procedure nowadays thanks to the televising of Parliament, but one character comments rather presciently:

“We ought to film this place,” chuckled West. “Would any of us ever make a speech again if we could see how funny we looked when we are doing it?”

And I can’t help thinking that the televising of the bear garden that passes for politics might actually have had a more damaging effect than anything else in our faith in politicians…

Ellen Wilkinson by National Photo Company Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I digress. Wilkinson writes beautifully, bringing alive her setting with all its atmosphere. And as in “Clash” she’s not afraid to deal with issues, albeit in perhaps a more subtle way than her earlier book. Gracie Richards is surely a self-portrait, and I warmed to her; and although she gets to voice her opinions, there is also discussion of a world that was changing dramatically, with the young people having a very different attitude to life than the old Colonels who still believed in the Empire and the old ways. In many ways, West is stuck between the two extremes, which makes for a nuanced portrayal and a thoughtful look at the state of the UK in the early 1930s.

The House with its lighted windows seemed the quiet centre of the whirlpool that was London. A harassed Cabinet Minister negotiated with an American financier inside, and outside the raw material of their transactions, the people who elected the Minister and would have to pay interest on the loan, surged and demonstrated. They wanted bread. It wasn’t like England – Stuart-Orford was right about that. But it was the new England, and what was to be done about it?

But I need to get back to the puzzle! To be honest, as a murder mystery the book has small flaws: it *is* a little unlikely that the police wouldn’t have found the truth out sooner; there are perhaps a few too many characters in the story, meaning that Wilkinson isn’t able to give them the attention they deserve; and the doe-eyed devotion of West to Annette is as irritating to me as it obviously was to Gracie Fisher… And although the ending was quietly dramatic, I would have liked a little more of the aftermath, and to find out what happened later to the various participants. It’s a shame Wilkinson didn’t write any more mysteries, as I did love many of her characters and would have liked to follow their future adventures; although I suppose there are only so many murders you can set in the House of Commons without getting into Midsomer-Murders-silliness territory…

Nevertheless, “The Division Bell Mystery” is a worthy and important addition to the British Library Crime Classics series. It’s always entertaining, surprisingly thought-provoking and like “Clash” quite ahead of its time in places. Wilkinson obviously relished being part of the Parliamentary system and believed that it was a system that worked; although she’s refreshingly cynical at time, indicating that it’s the Civil Servants who run the country and not the actually politicians. I wonder if that still holds true? The book comes with a preface by Rachel Reeves, a Labour MP, and is introduced as always by Martin Edwards, who considers politics in Golden Age crime novels. Reading about Parliament from the point of view of one of the earliest women M.P.s is very special, and she can’t resist the occasional nice little barb:

Women M.P.s might try to abolish this absurdity, but the House, which in the past years has swallowed whole strings of new camels, would die in the last ditch in defence of some antiquated gnat of a custom.

Discovering the books of Ellen Wilkinson has been a real treat; “Division Bell…” was as absorbing as “Clash”, albeit with a different focus, and I really do wish she’d gone on to write more books; but bearing in mind her Parliamentary record, literature’s loss was politics’ gain…

(Review copy kindly provided by British Library Crime Classics, for which many thanks!)

*For those who don’t know, Wikipedia informs us that a Division Bell is one used in the immediate neighbourhood of the Palace of Westminster (which houses Parliament) to signal that a division is occurring and that members of the House of Commons or of the House of Lords have eight minutes to get to their chosen Division lobby to vote for or against the resolution. The division bells are also sounded at the point when the house sits (at the start of its day); at the end of the two-minute prayers that start each day and when the house rises. There are approximately five hundred bells in and around the Palace of Westminster.

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