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A twisty tale – and is murder *ever* justified??? @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

There are times when only a comfort read will do, and I had a period like that at the end of May when I was suffering from a pretty vicious sinus infection. I managed to push through some Tolstoy short stories, but the Virginia Woolf houses book was a relaxing joy to read, and it seemed the logical thing after that to move on to some Golden Age crime (yes, I’m *that* behind with my reviewing….) I have a number of lovely British Library Crime Classics waiting to be read, and I was vaguely shocked to find that this one came out a year ago. Frankly, I wish I’d read it sooner; it’s an original and very wonderful take on a courtroom drama and I absolutely loved it!

Richard Hull is another of those unfairly neglected authors that BLCC are so good at bringing back into print; and Martin Edwards gives an outline of his life in his informative foreword. Hull wrote eleven crime novels, of which this is his sixth, and fascinatingly Edwards quotes a favourable review of the book by one Jorge Luis Borges. So another very good reason to read it…

Fenby felt already a strong dislike for rich men who inconsiderately purchased poison by which they themselves met their own end. It could only be called downright careless.

“Excellent Intentions” follows a trial taking place after the murder of Henry Cargate. The latter is the newly arrived ‘lord of the manor’ in the village of Scotney End, but unfortunately has not turned out to be a popular arrival. A man who’s made money by dubious methods, he shuns the locals, has his staff and all his requirements sent from London and even falls out with the local vicar. It’s hardly surprising he has no friends and family, and when he dies on the local train to Great Barwick the natural assumption is that his weak heart has given out. However, the local doctor has a suspicion which he passes on to the police; and Scotland Yard send in the unassuming but drily witty Inspector Fenby to investigate.

The mystery sounds straightforward enough (although the method is very nifty), but as well as being cleverly plotted it’s a real winner because of its rather unusual structure. Instead of a traditional linear narrative, the book opens with the beginning of the trial for Cargate’s murder and the opening speech of the prosecution. The story is then told in a series of interwoven flashbacks and scenes of investigation, which is intriguing to read and ramps up the suspense – especially as we aren’t told who the person in the dock is until very late in the book! It’s certainly a novel way to tell a story, and it really is brilliantly constructed. Everybody in the tale gets their little piece of input into the case – from the ruminations of the judge to the thoughts of the jurors, the deliberations of the various counsels as well as the opinons of Cargate’s staff and the village locals, we get to peek inside their minds and see the story from every angle.

You won’t, by the way, be able to contest the will on the ground that leaving everything of which you die possessed to the nation is an obvious sign of lunacy. It’ll be called patriotism, which is only nearly the same thing and quite different in law.

Throughout the story, the character of the deceased is in sharp focus, and he’s a strange, somewhat unpleasant man who nobody really cares about and nobody will really miss. There’s much discussion of altruistic murder, about whether somebody got Cargate out of the way for the good of everyone, which is of course a dubious moral stand to take. This even brings in a nod to the French Revolution, via a mention of Charlotte Corday! Another prominent element, oddly enough, is stamp collecting! Cargate was a philatelist and his trading with a leading stamp dealer from London throws up some suspicious behaviour and discussions of various gradings of stamps which oddly enough is never dull (mind you, I was a stamp collector for a little while in my teens… The phases we go through!)

“Excellent Intentions” is a twisty and entertaining little tale, and many of the characters do indeed have excellent intentions in the way the behave. There are, in the end, four possible suspects for the murder; though if I’m honest, the one in the dock really turns out to be the only option. The denouement is entertaining, clever and satisfying, and I ended the book with a huge smile on my face as well as being convinced that Hull is an author I want to read more of. Fortunately, the BL have put out his first novel “The Murder of My Aunt” and even more fortunately I have a copy lurking. I really could do no better than go on a BLCC binge, could I?

#1965Club – golden age crime at a point of transition… @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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For our Club reads, I generally manage to fit in some crime reading, but wasn’t finding anything obvious for 1965. As Simon commented in his fascinating podcast about our reading weeks (do go and check it out here!) there’s pretty much always a Simenon title to choose from; and although there is indeed a Maigret from 1965, I don’t own it. The British Library Crime Classics series wasn’t necessarily the obvious place to look for a 1960s title, as Golden Age crime is generally earlier than that. However, a quick rummage through the review copies I had lurking revealed that there was indeed an unread BLCC from 1965 awaiting – “The Belting Inheritance” by Julian Symons; and it turned out to be the perfect book to accompany me on the train during my recent visit to London!

“The Belting Inheritance” opens in what might be regarded as a traditional country house setting. Our narrator, young Christopher Barrington, was taken in by his great-aunt, Lady Wainwright, when he was orphaned at the age of 12; the family live in “gothic gloom” at Belting and apart from the matriarch and Christopher, there are his cousins Miles and Stephen (who he calls uncle, because of the age difference), Stephen’s appallingly doggy wife Clarissa, and a number of general factotums. The house is particularly gloomy because Lady W is still mourning the loss of her two elder sons, Hugh and David, during the war; they’re held up as paragons while the rest of the family are kept well under her thumb. Young Christopher settles in ok, gets on with Lady W and his uncle Miles, and makes it through public school intact. But when he returns to Belting at the end of his schooling, prior to heading up to Oxford, things are taking a dramatic new direction. Lady W is gravely ill; but more shockingly, a man has turned up claiming to be David Wainwright, having survived the war and then spent a number of years in a Russian camp. Lady W is desperate to welcome him with open arms, but the rest of the family (particularly the odious Stephen) are less than happy with the idea, fearing the loss of their inheritance. Add into the mix Miles’ ex-wife, a roving girl reporter with a connection to a dubious incident in the family’s past, any number of skeletons ready to leap out of closets and plenty of chasing about all over the place, and you get the recipe for a cracking read which takes Golden Age crime off in some very unexpected directions! 😀

Martin Edwards, in his excellent foreword, describes “Belting…” as “an entertaining example of a Grand Master at work“, and he’s not wrong; make no mistake, this is a gloriously clever book. Symons takes the tropes of a classic GA crime book (country house, controlling matriarch, returning prodigal, conflict over inheritance) and subverts them brilliantly in a book that’s unputdownable and completely entertaining. When you’re reading the early chapters which set the scene and bring us to the point of the claimant’s first appearance, you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading just another country house murder; albeit one that’s beautifully written and really atmospheric. The narrator’s rather naive 18-year-old voice is totally authentic, and the gradual development and shifting of his perceptions brilliantly done. However, as the book progresses, Symons gradually reveals how the world was changing, how anachronistic the Wainwrights are, and how the rest of the locality view them. Sex and alcohol rear their heads as subjects; there is a marvellous jaunt to Paris at one point, and a particularly lovely bit where Christopher contemplates the fact he’s standing in a place which had seen Danton, Tom Paine and David, amongst others. This latter reference, in particular, made me wonder if Symons was signalling the revolution that had been coming in British society following the end of the Second World War, but I may just be reading too much into it!

However, Symons integrates two seemingly disparate milieus in a way that’s always entirely convincing, whilst creating a twisty and clever plot with characters you know, and in many cases care about deeply. I loved Betty, Miles’ ex-wife who went off and dabbled in arts and clubs, and was surrounded by all sorts of entertaining people. Miles himself was a dear, and I was on tenterhooks in case anything dreadful happened to him. The ending was totally satisfying, with loose ends dealt with and surviving characters rounded up nicely, and I finished the book with a huge smile on my face.

I have quite a few BLCCs (ahem!) still waiting to be read and reviewed, and so I’m not sure I necessarily would have gone for this one if I hadn’t been nudged to it by the #1965Club. However, I’m *so* glad I was; “The Belting Inheritance” was absolutely brilliant, unexpectedly one of the best entries in the BLCC collection. It was a pure joy from start to finish, and just perfect for a train journey too – highly recommended! 😀

Back to books! Plus a little bookish eye-candy…😉

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Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that I was about to rename the blog Kaggsy’s Iconoclastic Ramblings or Kaggsy’s Documentary Ramblings, given that I’ve been off on a bit of a tangent recently! I thoroughly enjoyed my time in “Viral” land, as well as running the interview with Richard Clay, and as this is my space in the InterWeb, I reserve the right to do whatever I want with it! But the focus on the Ramblings will always be on the written word and so it’s probably about time we had some more gratuitous pictures of books!

And I had thought that I was being good, until I looked back over my spreadsheet of arrivals and realised that actually quite a number had managed to sneak their way into the house. In mitigation, a *lot* of these are review copies (which I’m very happy about) – but nevertheless they are here, taking up space! =:o So I’ve divvied them up into categories, and here goes…

The Waterstones Wobble

Sounds like a dance, doesn’t it? I shared on Instagram, but not here I think, the fact that I got slightly carried away in Waterstones recently and bought some full-priced books in a bricks and mortar bookstore and it felt amazing! And these are they:

The lovely little Macfarlane book is one I’ve already read and reviewed on the blog and it was worth every penny. The Dawkins is because I wanted a Dawkins and I couldn’t decide which one and ended up buying this one and I want to read everything he’s written NOW except there are so many books competing for space. Arrrggghhh! As for the Brodsky, it caught my eye; I have a collection of his essays and also a poetry one, but this is an essay on Venice and I thought it would make an excellent companion piece to some other Venice books I have (and one which I’ve already covered). I’ve dipped and I want to read it straight away too.

Charity Shop Finds

The logical thing to do, really, would be to stop going into the charity shops, wouldn’t it? And I try to avoid most of them nowadays, but there are a couple I pop into regularly – the Samaritans Book Cave and the Oxfam, both of which are dedicated book areas. I’m trying to be really selective, particularly as the Oxfam’s prices are sneaking up again. But these ones slipped through the net and I think each purchase is justified.

The Saramagos were, of course, essential. I loved my first encounter with him so much that I want to collect and read everything, and I’ve amassed quite a little pile thanks to the charity shops and Simon (who kindly passed on a Saramago he’d read!)

As for the Larkin and Eliot poetry collections – yes, I have all of their poems in other big volumes but these were small and nice and cheap and I’m finding myself more likely to pick up slim volumes than chunky collected ones. We shall see – I need to read more of the poetry books I have already.

eliot larkin

Pretty, ain’t they? Next up was this:

Fleur Jaeggy is a name that’s cropped up on all manner of blogs I read and respect, and this one sounds great; I was always going to pick up anything by her that I came across in the charity shops really…

Finally Simone Weil – an oddity in that it’s a hardback Virago from back in the day, and I did hum and hah a bit about buying it because I have more books than I can ever read in my lifetime if I’m honest. However, in the end I decided to get it – because it *is* an unusual Virago and Patti Smith rates Weil and so I’m prepared to give the book a go!

Bits and Bobs

Just a couple of books here which have crept into the Ramblings from various sources.

First up, the lovely Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write kindly passed on to me “The Death of the Perfect Sentence“, which she’d read herself. I love the sound of it and it’s from the Estonian, a language I think I haven’t read from before, so that’s a plus too. And secondly, an online purchase (I’ve been trying to resist those…) in the form of an intriguing-sounding book “The Trouble with Tom” which is all about Thomas Paine (which slightly ties in with the French Revolution Reading List thingy I came up with and haven’t forgotten about despite being deeply sunk in 19th century Russian nihilist circles). I read about this one recently and have forgotten instantly whose blog it was on – but thank you, whoever it was!

Review Books

There are certain publishers whose books I love to read and cover, and a little chunk of review copies have arrived recently (well – a big chunk, really…) – as you can see:

The British Library really have spoiled me, with more of their marvellous Crime Classics and another two Sci Fi Classics. I adore both of these ranges, so I can see some happy reading hours coming up over the Easter break!

Oneworld have also been very kind; I was really keen to read “Solovyov and Larionov” after loving Eugene Vodolazkin’s book “The Aviator” last year and can’t wait to get stuck in. Additionally, they offered an intriguing new work called “How We Disappeared” by Jing-Jing Lee; set in Singapore and spanning decades, it sounds fascinating.

Pushkin Press always have an amazing array of books, but it’s a little while since I read one of their Pushkin Vertigo titles. “Casanova and the Faceless Woman” is set just before the first French Revolution – so ideal for me, no? 😀

And last, but definitely not least, the wonderfully titled “The Office of Gardens and Ponds” from MacLehose Press – it looks just gorgeous and sounds wonderful.

Thank you *so* much, lovely publishers. And yes –  I’m definitely going to be abandoning sleep some time soon…

Current Reading

Needless to say, I’m still pacing myself through the marathon that is Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”… As you can see from the festoons of post-it notes, I’m getting on quite well.

TBH it probably wasn’t the most sensible choice of book for what is probably my busiest time of the year (budgeting and financial year-end against a very tight deadline, anyone?) One of those lovely BL books might have been slightly more wise, but I’m loving the Russian chunkster so I shall keep going – though it’s entirely possible I might try to slip in something slim as light relief when the dark action of Dostoevsky gets too much!

So – what from the above takes *your* fancy????? 😁

Crime in the Blackout @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac

If in doubt, cosy crime…. I spent quite a number of hours reading the Owen Hatherley book, which I really enjoyed, but I felt in need of something a bit different. Hence, I suppose, a quick rummage in the pile of British Library Crime Classics waiting to be read and reviewed! I settled for this one because I enjoyed Lorac’s short story in the collection “The Christmas Card Crime” so much; and also I think because Harriet rated it so highly in her review. I wasn’t disappointed!

E.C.R. Lorac was the pen-name used by Edith Caroline Rivett, and she also wrote under the name of Carol Carnac. Astonishingly, despite the fact that she was a prolific writer of Golden Age crime, and a member of the Detection Club, her work has been all but forgotten until its recent revival by the BLCC imprint – so more kudos for them. Her regular detective was Inspector Macdonald, who features in this story, and as the introduction by Martin Edwards makes clear, “Murder by Matchlight” was considered one of her best; it’s received considerable praise in other reviews I’ve read, even by BLCC standards, and it’s not hard to see why…

London was silent, with a silence which had no quality of peacefulness: in its shroud of darkness the place seemed tense, uneasy, as if it were waiting for the first banshee held of sirens which seemed a fitting accompaniment to the listening darkness.

“Murder by Matchlight” was first published in 1945 and is firmly set during the Second World War. We are in a world of ration cards and the black market; the black-out and air raids; and as the story opens a young man called Bruce Mallaig is walking in Regent’s Park in the dark, a place he can now get access to at night because the railings have been taken away to use for munitions. Having been stood up for a date, he’s in a morose mood; however, his mood is about to worsen as he witness an apparently impossible murder. A man on a bridge is killed, apparently by someone whose face materialises briefly in the light of a match. However, someone else was under the bridge and heard no other footsteps; and there are no more footprints.

Fortunately, Chief Inspector Macdonald is on hand to investigate, and a visit to the murdered man’s lodgings reveals a colourful array of potential suspects, most notably Mr. and Mrs. Rameses, a magical act. However, there is another possible connection to the murdered man’s past in Ireland, where he fought for Sinn Fein; and also to the film industry at Denham, where he gained occasional work. It’s a clever, twisty mystery that takes all of Macdonald’s ingenuity to sort out. And I confess to being completely misled (which I do love in a GA Crime Novel!). At times I thought I was a step ahead of Lorac and Macdonald, only to be regularly wrongfooted, and I only really started to get an inkling when the book got close to its big reveal. The end was ingenious and satisfying, leaving me wanting more of both Lorac’s writing and the characters she created. I particularly adored the Rameses’, and her description of Macdonald’s first encounter with the lady of the couple is priceless!

They lived in the flat on the first floor and the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce-coloured, wadded silk dressing up-gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements, for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

However, despite it being an excellent and readable mystery, where “Murder…” really scores is in its setting and atmosphere. The further away we get from the Second World War, the harder it is for us to imagine what it was to live through those days and those events. We’re fairly unused to conflicts taking place on our little island, and it does us good to be reminded, I think. Lorac doesn’t shy away from any of this, and cleverly builds the events happening in London (a dramatic bombing raid, the people involved and how they react) into her story. She also inserts at several points comment on the fact that justice must be seen to be done, whatever else is happening in the world. The murder victim is not a particularly nice person, one the world is probably better without. Yet when Macdonald is taken to task for worrying about who killed him while the world is going to hell in a handcart, he equates allowing a murderer to get away killing to allying oneself to Nazism. It’s a powerful message, even more so as it was written while the conflict was taking place.

(Macdonald) had an uncomfortable feeling that his lungs were still full of smoke: the reek of last night’s fire seem to hang about him. Then he realised that a thick fog brooded over London and he wished for a moment that he was anywhere else in the world – anywhere, away from fog and bombs and barrage and shelters and demolitions and all the rest of it.

So “Murder by Matchlight” is a punchy and powerful addition to the BLCC list (and now I’m keen to read her other titles too!) This book comes with a lovely little extra in the form of a rarely seen short story by Lorac, which is extremely satisfying. I’m so glad I followed my instincts and picked this book up right now; it was the perfect read for a cold and gloomy January, and I find myself wondering quite how we lovers of classic crime got by before the British Library started bringing out these rather wonderful books… 😉

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!

Seasonal and sometimes chilly crime! @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories
Edited by Martin Edwards

It’s fast becoming a tradition around the Ramblings to spend the end of December with some wonderful Christmas Crime from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics, and 2018 is no exception! Last year Ann Meredith’s “Portrait of a Murderer” marked 50 books being published by the BL in the series; in 2016 I read and loved the “Crimson Snow” collection; this year’s festive treat is the third superb collection of seasonal short stories curated by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, and needless to say it’s a pure joy.

The book features eleven stories, some short, some long, but all very clever and twisty. All are set in or around Christmas and are arranged chronologically, ranging in time from Baroness Orczy up to the more modern tales of Julian Symons and taking in such luminaries as Carter Dickson, Francis Durbridge and John Bude. What’s so good about the BL collections, apart from the fact they’re sheer enjoyment, is that they’re also the perfect way to get to know new authors and in some cases their serial characters. For example, I’ve not read any of Baroness Orczy’s ‘Lady Molly’ stories, so the one included here was an ideal introduction (on the evidence of which I’d like to read more!) Similarly, despite having several E.C.R. Lorac books lurking on Mount TBR, I haven’t actually read them yet, and the story here has whetted my appetite.

McBride, the philosopher, was the host of the great man; and he felt bound to interfere, partly from the sense of hospitality, partly because he always likes to be desperately just. (Nobody, it has been said, has seen more points of view than McBride, or adopted less.)

The style of story is wonderfully varied too. There are traditional, country-house style mysteries; tales that veer towards ghost story territory; locked room mysteries; light-hearted jaunts; thrillers; and so much more. It’s always hard to pick favourites in any excellent collection, so I won’t; but I will mention that the Lorac was very cleverly constructed; the Carter Dickson brilliant and chilling; the Knox had a wonderful twist (as well as including a nod to Agatha Christie by naming one of the characters Westmacott); and the Symons was a most unexpected and wonderful exposition of how a seemingly perfect crime plan can go completely awry.

I regularly sing the praises of the BL on the Ramblings, and for good reason; the Crime Classics have to be lauded for bringing so many unjustly neglected authors and books back into the public eye. I always find I can’t go wrong with one of their books, and their Christmas collections are no exception. Highly recommended seasonal reading! 🙂

Christmas comes early to the Ramblings! @BL_Publishing #BLCC #thepocketdetective

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Normally I’m one of those people who get a bit scratchy about the rampant commercialism in the shops, and the fact that Christmas items start sneaking onto the shelves as early as September; however, an unexpected arrival at the Ramblings courtesy of the wonderful peeps at British Library Publishing set me thinking about festive gifts, and I have to say it will be the ideal thing for anyone who loves Golden Age crime!

This is it – “The Pocket Detective”, compiled by Kate Jackson:

And great fun it is too! I was in the BL earlier in the year with my BFF J.; we’re both fans of the Crime Classics and were investigating the shop while visiting the place, and I’m pretty sure there was a poster up advertising this little book. It wasn’t available yet, but I imagine is being launched for the Christmas market, for which it’s of course perfect. It’s a fairly safe bet that fans of GA crime are also going to like puzzles (as the latter is a major element of the genre) and “The Pocket Detective” is stuffed with them.

There are crosswords; word searches; cross out the word; odd ones out; missing vowels; really, every kind of word-based puzzle you could imagine. Those would be treat enough, but the book goes a little further with a section about 30 pages long featuring colour visual puzzles. These are drawn from the wonderful cover images of the Crime Classics which have been tweaked or distorted so you have to spot the differences or identify which book the image is from. Great fun!

Although the focus is naturally on the books the BL publish, the riddles aren’t restricted to just those. In fact, they cover all manner of classic crime, and I was pleased to find that I sailed through several of the Agatha Christie-themed tests! (Well – I have been reading her work since I was about 12!) Sayers is there too, as well as the newly rediscovered names from the Crime Classics, and it’s fun to pit yourself against the compiler’s ingenious conundrums. Jackson blogs about classic crime fiction at Cross Examining Crime, and she obviously knowns her stuff!

Obviously, “The Pocket Detective” is the perfect gift; either for the reader of crime in your life, or just yourself! I can imagine that it would be the ideal thing to occupy yourself with while everyone else is sleeping off Christmas lunch – or in fact at any other time of the day. It’s ideal as the darker nights draw in, and I can see it keeping me very busy (and distracting me from actual reading) over forthcoming weeks. Do yourself a favour – add it to your Christmas wishlist… 😉

A murder in the House of Commons! @BL_Publishing #BLCC #EllenWilkinson

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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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