Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson (Poisoned Pen Press, 2018) is the latest release in the British Library Crime Classics series. Originally published in 1932, this is the only mystery by the author, who was a Labour Member of Parliament much of her life, one of the first women to serve in that role. I am sure she was an effective representative for her constituents but her efforts could have as easily been directed into a string of well-done mysteries, had she chosen.

Post-war England desperately needs a loan and Georges Oissel, a reclusive multi-millionaire representing a consortium, has agreed in principle to extend the requested money but is making the details awkward. His long-ago friend from Canada, now the Home Secretary, is having dinner with him in one of the private dining rooms of the House of Commons to smooth over arrangements. The Secretary leaves his guest alone for a few minutes to attend the final vote on a matter of importance. Thus, when the Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary Robert West and a friend hear a gunshot from within the dining room at the same time that the division bell rings and Big Ben strikes the hour of nine, West, his friend, and a waiter rush in to the room to find the crumpled body of Oissel on the floor and no one else. Windows were locked and suicide appeared to be the only answer. Except the forensic evidence doesn’t add up, setting Scotland Yard a pretty locked room puzzle.

West serves as amateur investigator, helping Inspector Blackitt of the CID and protecting his Secretary, not known for his brains or his ability, from political fallout. Along the way he provides unconscious insight to the political milieu of the time. The financier’s charismatic granddaughter, a political news reporter, and other MPs are all noteworthy characters who contribute to the unfolding of the plot as well as to the sense of time and place.

The introduction by Rachel Reeves MP helped me understand much of the context around this period story, when women in politics were still rare. The author spells out working conditions for women in the House of Common, where female MPs were allowed and where they weren’t. This fascinating commentary makes the book worthwhile reading on its own, with a well-executed mystery on the side.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Dreadful Hollow by Nicholas Blake

The Dreadful Hollow by Nicholas Blake (Collins, 1953) is the 10th book featuring Nigel Strangeways, an occasional poet who spends more time looking into things for people than writing verse. In this outing Strangeways is retained by Sir Archibald Blick, a wealthy financier, to investigate the outbreak of anonymous letters in a village, where Blick’s sons live and where Blick has significant business interests. The letters are especially vicious, causing at least one suicide and great distress throughout the small town. Although Strangeways eliminated a number of suspects pretty quickly based on their access, or lack thereof, to the logistics of the local mail system, what puzzled him was how well-informed the anonymous letter writer was. At least one letter contained information that no one in the village could know. Figuring out the source of the inflammatory innuendo was of great concern to him, although his client just wants the letters stopped.  

Among the lives being wrecked by the letters are two sisters, one of which was courted by one of Blick’s sons years ago and the other whom he is courting now. Neither match is acceptable to the mogul, who is a great fan of eugenics and he considers the family of the two sisters to be genetically tainted.

With the entire village on tenterhooks, the ensuing murder was not surprising but the choice of victim was. This story is classic Strangeways in every aspect.

I asked the denizens of Golden Age Detection, a Facebook group whose members know everything and make great reading recommendations, if the poison pen letter writer always targeted a village and they seem to think so. There was less consensus on whether the anonymous letter writer is strictly a Golden Age plot device, although largely it appears to be. They offer the following as examples:

  • Death of a Poison Pen by M. C. Beaton
  • The Bells of Old Bailey by Dorothy Bowers
  • Beware Your Neighbour by Miles Burton
  • The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  • The Long Divorce by Edmund Crispin
  • Welcome Death by Glyn Daniel
  • Night at the Mocking Widow by Carter Dickson
  • Close Quarters by Michael Gilbert
  • “The Possibility of Evil” a short story by Shirley Jackson
  • The House of the Arrow by A E Mason
  • The Crimson Madness of Little Doom by Mark McShane
  • Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers
  • Poison in the Pen by Patricia Wentworth
  • Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White