The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

The best Gentlemen’s Club in England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s the early 1930s. Britain’s finances haven’t yet recovered from the Great War and now the Stock Market collapse has brought matters close to crisis. So the Home Secretary has invited an American financier to a private dinner at the House of Commons to schmooze him into agreeing to make the government a substantial loan. But when the Division Bell sounds, the Home Secretary has to leave the room to go and vote. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West, is also hurrying along the corridor to vote, but as he passes the room where the financier waits alone, he hears a shot. Rushing in with the other people in the corridor, he finds the financier dead! But no-one else is in the room, no-one left by the door after the shot was fired and there’s no other exit. Suicide is soon discounted, so how was he killed? Who killed him? And why? Robert finds himself working as a liaison with the police to find the answers…

This is a lot of fun, especially if, like me, you’re fascinated by all the quirky traditions that surround parliamentary procedures in this ancient seat of government. It was written by Ellen Wilkinson, one of the earliest women Members of Parliament, who had temporarily lost her seat. She got back into Parliament at the next election – a gain for politics, but a loss to the world of crime fiction, since this turned out to be the only crime novel she wrote. She gives an entirely authentic, affectionate, but humorously sardonic look at being a working-class woman in an institution still often referred to as the best Gentlemen’s Club in England. The female MP in the story, Grace Richards, isn’t the main character but she provides lots of opportunities for Wilkinson to mock some of the rampant sexism to which women MPs were subjected, and Martin Edwards confirms in his introduction what I suspected while reading – that Grace is a thinly-disguised version of Wilkinson herself.

The main character, however, is Robert West, an extremely likeable young man who wants to do his duty to his party and country, but is fairly easily distracted by a beautiful face. The granddaughter of the dead financier just happens to have a beautiful face, so Robert soon finds his loyalties divided when she asks him for information he should really be keeping secret. The first question the police have to resolve is: was this murder personal or was it politically motivated? But even if they find the answer to that they still won’t be able to prove anything unless they can work out how the murder was done. It’s a good example of a locked room mystery, though it’s dependent on the various investigators not trying very hard to solve it until the last chapter! The plot is pleasingly tricky without being impossible for the reader to make a good stab at guessing the culprit and motive.

Challenge details:
Book: 89
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1932

The two enjoyable characters of Robert and Grace make this fun to read, especially since the victim was a mean old banker so nobody much cares that he’s dead. Even his granddaughter is pretty stoical about the whole thing. One of the reasons I love Golden Age crime is that they tended not to make the reader wallow too deeply in grief for the victims, so that one can actually enjoy the books. What makes this one stand out from the crowd, though, is the way Wilkinson manages to tell us so much about the workings of Parliament without getting heavily bogged down in politics, though she does make enough references to give the reader an informed glimpse of the various concerns of the day, economically and socially, at a time when society was changing pretty dramatically, not least for women. I found it intriguing and amusing that, although she herself was a Labour MP (hence on the left), Robert is a Conservative (on the right). She rather cheekily lets us see his opinions being swayed by fiery young socialist Grace – whose face, while not as beautiful as the victim’s granddaughter’s, is beautiful enough to trouble the susceptible Robert…

Ellen Wilkinson

I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it not just as a good mystery, but as an entertaining way to get an insider’s account of the life of early women MPs. Wilkinson went on to play a prominent role in the Jarrow March – a piece of history that eventually fed into huge social change in Britain – so most of me is glad she resumed her political career. But a bit of me wishes she’d chucked it all up and written more books instead…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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40 thoughts on “The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

  1. This sounds great and I might have to look it out. I remember reading an Agatha Christie (I can’t remember which one) in which a child is intent on seeing the corpse of someone who has been murdered and doesn’t seem to suffer any ill effects from doing so. Not something you could get away with in current crime writing because you’d have an editor wagging their finger at you. Agatha wasn’t interested in anyone emoting much – pure problem solving!

    • Ah, that would be the schoolboys in 4.50 from Paddington, I think – I loved the policeman’s “Oh well, boys will be boys” attitude to them wanting to see the corpse! And frankly I think most of the boys I knew when I was a kid – and most of the girls too come to that – would indeed have wanted to see the body! Kids are much tougher than adults… 😉

  2. This sounds like a great story, FIctionFan, not only in terms of the actual mystery, but also in terms of what it shares about life at that time. And the ‘inside look’ at Parliament and all of those little rituals sounds fascinating. I always do like a book that gives me some insight as well as good story. Very glad you enjoyed this one.

    • Another very enjoyable one, Margot – the BL seem to have been finding some real goodies recently. Yes, it was great to have it told from an insider – I read an autobiography once from another early woman MP but it was exceedingly dull. Much more fun when a murder is thrown in! 😉

    • My pleasure! Yes, it really showed through in the feeling of authenticity, and you could tell she loved all the parliamentary rituals even though she was having to battle the in-built sexism.

    • I don’t know whether they’ve reprogrammed my brain, but I feel all the recent ones I’ve read have been great, although I found the earlier ones much more variable. This one might not be the greatest mystery in the world, but the look at parliament from the inside more than made up for any weaknesses for me – hope you manage to track a copy down!

    • I know – it’s either been five stars or quickly abandoned for the last few weeks! Haha – I’ll let you off with this one then, because I wouldn’t want to be responsible for breaking your iron willpower… 😉

  3. I don’t recall ever hearing of this one before, so thank you, FF, for educating me. Sounds like an interesting read — and how nice to get a five-star review on a Friday!

    • I think it’s been out of print for a long time till the British Library brought it back. I’ve been giving an awful lot of five stars recently – I’ll have to see if I can find some bad books… 😉

  4. Gosh this book sounds so unique! It’s not very often that a murder mystery has such a strong background plot, like the politics in this one. Typically, the lead-up to the murder is so secondary it almost becomes irrelevant, but it sounds like the murder is just one of MANY things going on in this one!

    • Definitely what I enjoyed most about this one was the setting and learning about being a woman MP way back then. The plot really is pretty secondary. It’s also got one of the most likeable heroes I’ve read in a long time – somebody I wouldn’t have minded having a date or two with myself… 😉

  5. You are on a hot streak of good books at the moment!
    I liked your comment about the Golden Age author’s style of allowing readers to enjoy their murders without getting bogged down into the emotions that come from caring about the victims. Very often they trick us by making us care about the murderer!

  6. How interesting – crime in the House of Commons! I had no idea Ellen Wilkinson wrote a murder mystery – definitely going to check this one out. She was certainly a feisty character!

    • It really is interesting – I loved getting a glimpse of life as a woman MP back then, especially since she had so much fun with the characters. I think it’s been out of print for years, but it’s well worth reading – it’s made me want to learn more about Ellen Wilkinson.

  7. I really love when books feel authentic thanks to someone working in the industry that they’re writing about. Fiction writing advice, though, is confusing. There’s “write what you know,” but young writers are also encouraged to write what they wish were true, so imagining it.

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