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.  

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