Friday’s Forgotten Book: Death at the Medical Board by Josephine Bell

Josephine Bell was the pseudonym of Doris Bell Collier Ball (1897-1987), a British author who also studied and practiced medicine. Bell began to write detective novels beginning in 1936 under her pen name. Many of her works made good use of her medical background. Bell had several series characters, including Dr. David Wintringham, Barrister Claud Warrington-Reeve, Dr. Henry Frost, Inspector Steven Mitchell, and Amy Tupper. In 1953, Bell helped found the Crime Writers’ Association and served as chair from 1959 to 1960. Wikipedia says she wrote nineteen novels and forty-five mystery novels, as well as radio plays, short stories, and series for women’s magazines. I was unable to quickly find a definitive list of titles; the lists on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, Stop! You’re Killing Me, and Fantastic Fiction websites are similar but not identical.

Bell tended to deploy her detectives in pairs or trios but occasionally she sent them out on unsupported detecting jobs. Such is the case with Death at the Medical Board (Longmans, Green & Co, 1944) in which Dr. David Wintringham was pulled into a village mystery by a friend.

Ursula Frinton was raised in the village of Shornford by a doting uncle after the death of her parents. A bout of scarlet fever as a child left her family convinced that she was frail and could not exert herself without serious consequences. Nonetheless she was determined to do her part during World War II and applied for military service like every other young woman in England. Before her medical fitness examination, she took the precaution of visiting an eminent cardiologist who assured her nothing was wrong with her heart. She took his letter with her to present to the medical board.

Shortly thereafter she was found dying by one of the board physicians in a changing room. This attending physician wrote her colleague Dr. Wintringham about the murder. Wintringham was intrigued and obtained permission from his unnamed management to probe an angle that appeared to lead to a larger case.

This story is deceptively complicated. The motive for the murder appeared early and I was a little annoyed with the victim for not recognizing her vulnerability and failing to take protective measures. I thought the culprit would prove to be one of two people and was tempted to put the book aside as too obvious to finish. However, I didn’t and was rewarded with enough duplicity and iniquity to satisfy anyone. By the end of the story an intricate set of circumstances, some of them far-fetched, is established. Again, as is so often the case in mysteries set in this general timeframe, identity is a factor. The atmosphere and the outlook of the time and place were well represented and the story is worth reading for that alone.  

Friday’s Forgotten Book: A Deceptive Clarity by Aaron Elkins

Aaron Elkins is an Edgar award winning author, mostly known for his books about Gideon Oliver, a forensic anthropology expert in Washington State. Another early series which I rarely hear mentioned is about an art historian and only has three books. The first is A Deceptive Clarity (Walker & Co., 1987), which introduces Chris Norgren. Norgren is going through a painful divorce and finds life in general frustrating. The director of the San Francisco County Museum of Art where Norgren works has noticed his lassitude and proposes to send him to Europe to help manage a traveling exhibit of art pieces recovered from the Nazis after World War II.

Arriving in Berlin, Norgren is almost immediately confronted with one of the trials of the civilian on a military installation: obtaining the correct ID to allow the civilian to do what he (or she) went there to do. What he was given in Rhein-Main is not considered acceptable at Tempelhof, where his office is. His lack of ID becomes a mildly entertaining thread, along with his divorce lawyer who calls him every few days with changing demands from his soon-to-be ex-wife.

Once he manages to gain access to his office, the director of the exhibit Peter van Cortlandt casually mentions the forgery he thinks he’s discovered among the exhibit’s collection. Norgren knows van Cortlandt would never joke about something so serious but does not learn details before van Cortlandt rushes away to catch a flight to Frankfurt.

Norgren of course wants to see these masterpieces and to find the forgery. As the guard unlocks the storeroom, noise inside alerts them and in no time they are being efficiently beaten by two goons who leave them bloody and semi-conscious. The next few days pass in a blur as Norgren recovers in the local military hospital. He’s only back at work a few hours when he learns that van Cortlandt is dead, apparently from a fall in a seedy district of Frankfurt. His puzzling death leaves Norgren in charge of the exhibition. While he works on it, he also examines each of the pictures to try to decide if it is a forgery, which results in a lengthy but absorbing description of the authentication process.

This mystery is as much about the paintings as it is about the death of van Corlandt, perhaps more so. It is quite cerebral. I enjoyed it but I can see readers uninterested in the art world will not find it appealing, which is sadly their loss.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Country-House Burglar by Michael Gilbert

This week’s review is a fine English village mystery by Michael Gilbert, set in the 1950s when the memories of the war had receded but not gone, and the country had recovered economic stability. The stand-alone story was published in the United States as The Country-House Burglar (Harper, 1955) and issued as Sky High in England by Hodder & Stoughton in the same year. My rant against the aggravating practice of giving multiple titles to the same book can be taken for granted.

Brimberley is a quiet country village somewhere south of London but well within commuting range, we’re told, as Tim Artside takes the train up to London every day for a job he doesn’t discuss with his mother Liz. After the excitement of service during the war Liz is a little afraid her son has had trouble settling into a routine. Other than her worries about Tim, Liz is quite content to manage the choir of the local parish and to visit with her friends, many of them retired military officers who knew her husband.

Trouble arises when the vicar reports that the church poor box has been rifled, to the tune of about two pounds (about 53 pounds in 2020). Liz is alarmed when one of her choir members is accused on what she considers the thinnest of evidence. Then a series of country house burglaries spreads into territory closer to Brimberley, giving the local police a lot to think about. Worst of all, a house down the street explodes, killing the sole resident, a Major Macmorris who settled there after the war. After the police learn that Tim’s combat specialty was explosives, they were most interested in the fact he’d argued with Macmorris shortly before the explosion.

Lots of misdirection, a romance, and questions about identity, something that seems to be common in post-war mysteries. A comfortable and satisfying Golden Age read.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Dead Folks’ Blues by Steve Womack

Dead Folks’ Blues (Fawcett, 1992) is the first book in the Harry James Denton private investigator series by Steve Womack, published between 1992 and 2000. All six titles in the series were shortlisted for at least one major award and twice won it. This first book won an Edgar for Best Paperback in 1993. The fifth won the Shamus Award for Best Paperback in 1999, as well as being shortlisted for both an Anthony and an Edgar in the same year. That level of consistency in a series is rare.

Harry James Denton is an ex-reporter. ‘Ex’ because he engaged in a battle with his newspaper employer and, as is generally the case, lost. He decided to become a private investigator, figuring his researching skills were easily transferable. While he waits for PI work to materialize, he helps his friend repo vehicles. Not coincidentally, his friend also has great access to financial databases that are usually closely held, databases that turn out to be really useful to Denton.

His first paying customer is Rachel Fletcher, his old college flame, who asks him to help her surgeon husband find his way out of the morass of gambling debts that are rapidly sinking him. She officially knows nothing about them but has intercepted some threats meant for her husband. Denton asks around and learns Dr. Fletcher not only is deep in debt to his neighborhood bookie but he also has few fans and fewer friends. When he turns up dead in his own hospital, most of his students are quietly delighted. Many of them attend his funeral just to be sure he is in fact gone.

The police do not welcome the “help” of a private investigator, much less an inexperienced one like Denton. He persists in his inquiries, however, not making noticeable headway but realizes he has rattled a cage or two when there’s another murder. Fortunately, he has a cast-iron alibi for this one because the police would love to arrest him just to get him out of the way.

Denton as a character does not especially stand out from dozens of other fictional PIs in his first outing. I assume that he becomes more fully realized as the series progresses. However, the secondary characters are wonderful. The country songwriting team with an office down the hall from Denton, the gambling kingpin who owns the action in that part of town, and Marsha, the medical examiner, all are fresh and well drawn. And the description of Nashville is spot on. Anyone who knows Nashville will understand the references to the traffic, the smog, and the tourists with heartfelt sympathy.

Recommended for devotees of private investigator mysteries and for those who try to read all of the nominees for important awards. I look at those chosen titles as a reading list, although I’ve never managed to keep up with all of them. A good read!