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.