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.
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