It’s fairly obvious from even a casual glance at the Ramblings that I love to read Golden Age crime; as I’ve mentioned many times, I grew up reading Agatha Christie (and still love her) and have also read many of the greats in my time. So I’ve obviously taken comfort from the wonderful output from the British Library in their Crime Classics range, and continue to find the standard of stories they issue high. Interestingly, recently titles have pushed the envelope a little, which is fascinating; some stories edging closer to more modern times, and encompassing the changes taking place in society in 1960s, and embracing the police procedural, rather than the famous detective in a country house setting. However, my most recent read of one of their books, originally published in 1938, introduces a milieu which is miles away from the usual affluent surroundings – and that book is “The Port of London Murders” by Josephine Bell.

As Martin Edwards points out in his excellent introduction, Bell has already made an appearance in the BL series, with short stories in the “Crimson Snow” and “Deep Waters” collections. This novel is an early one by the author, and it’s set around the Port of London and on the river Thames in that fascinating period between the two wars when many people were struggling to make a living. As the book opens, the San Angelo drifts into port having survived dreadful storms in the Bay of Biscay. The ship is late, and as well as its cargo being delayed, some of it has been lost in the river. We’re introduced early to the two main characters, Harry Reed and June Harvey, both of whom live by the Thames; Harry saves June’s young brother Leslie from drowning, sustaining an injury in the process and two are drawn together. Both are from working class backgrounds; but June works in a lingerie shop and is attracting the attention of the flashy Gordon Longford who moves in more exalted circles and seems to have very suspect connections. Meanwhile, the police are trying to uncover dodgy dealings and drug smuggling down by the river – although one of their officers may be getting too close for comfort. Mix in a murder or two, a little illegal salvaging, some very inquisitive schoolboys, a few larger than life working class families and a somewhat dubious doctor, and you have quite the recipe for an absorbing and exciting mystery!

It’s the setting, of course, that makes this book stand out initially. As a hinted above, this is miles away from a country house or a small cosy English village; instead we are in an area where life is often brutal and short, work is hard and exhausting, and scraping a living to bring up your family is never easy. There are glimpses of the struggles and the poverty in the scenes involving various medics and a Relieving Officer, who try to do their best to help those in need but with limited resources. In these pre-NHS days, getting a doctor out if you were ill was expensive; and there seems to have been little aid available to those who couldn’t work because of illness. This background, and the awareness of the grim poverty which existed, is unusual in Golden Age crime, and adds a fascinating element to the book.

As for the story itself, well it’s really unputdownable. Bell writes well, portrays her locations and characters vividly, and really brings this lost world to life. Harry and June, a little tentative and unsure of each other at first, are an engaging pair and both are very cleverly woven into the plot. The latter itself is very twisty and turny, and although we know fairly early on who the villains are, it’s entertaining watching how they try to escape justice and how the various arms of the law do their best to encirle them. I shall say nothing about the ending of the book except that it is dramatic and fitting and very satisfying!

On the evidence of this and the short stories, Bell is definitely an author I’d like to read more by, and “Port” is an excellent additon to the BLCC range. There is perhaps a slight touch of cliché in her working class characters’ dialogue (although it may be accurate to the time – and she did research the River Police and their work whilst writing the book, so may well have mingled with Thameside locals); but this never gets in the way of the story. The subject matter (drug addiction and smuggling, murder, poverty) is actually quite dark, but that adds to a gritty portrayal of hard-working life in the 1930s. However, she balances this with some wonderful humour, particularly in her portrayal of two families, the Popes and the Dunwoodys, locked in neighbourly rivalry. The saga of their move from dilapidated soon-to-be demolished houses into more modern flats is a hoot, and also very telling of its time. And Bell’s creation of Leslie Harvey is particularly memorable – writing a convincing child character can be difficult, and Leslie is a believable scamp, somewhat reminiscent of the gang of boys in the wonderful Ealing film “Hue and Cry”.

“The Port of London Murders” was my final read in November, a difficult reading month at times which was redeemed at the end! It was entertaining from start to finish, a real joy, and evidence if it were needed that the quality of releases in the British Library Crime Classics series is not dropping. These books have brought me much comfort this year, and I suspect this won’t be last one I read before 2020 is over!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)