The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

A slice of life…

😀 😀 😀 😀

As fog rolls over the Thames a barge bearing a cargo of boxes ostensibly full of rubber breaks free from the tug pulling it, and tips its load into the river, later to be washed up along the banks. Meantime, an old woman dies, apparently from suicide. But Detective Sergeant Chandler isn’t convinced – he thinks it might be murder. As he begins to investigate, his colleagues in the river police are finding there’s something strange about the boxes that are being found along the river…

This book from 1938 has a rather different feel to it than the usual Golden Age mystery. Although there are two separate police investigations going on, it’s not what we’d think of as a police procedural, and yet it’s a bit too slow and thoughtful to be a thriller either. Also, the reader has a much better idea of what’s going on than the police because we are taken round all the various characters involved, being made privy to things the police haven’t yet found out. So there’s no real surprise about the solution to the crime element when it comes.

It’s really more of a look at the social conditions of those people struggling to live on the margins of post-depression pre-war poverty in the docklands beside the Thames. The plot revolves around the trade in illegally smuggled drugs – that’s not a spoiler since it’s made quite clear from early on. Both these aspects feel very realistic, the drugs plot especially feeling much more true to life than the often glamourised or exaggerated picture of it in fiction. Here it’s simply a case of unscrupulous people making money off the miserable addiction of others. Yes, there are murders done when they feel at risk, but no shoot-outs between rival gangs or king-pins taking revenge and so on. This is business – sordid and nasty, but simply business. We are also shown the addict’s view – the misery of it and how people are gradually driven to cross boundaries of behaviour in their desperate need to satisfy their cravings.

We also get a look at the pre-NHS health system, where poor people chose doctors on the basis of how cheap they were, and doctors could do little to alleviate the kinds of illness brought on by poverty and the appalling air of foggy, sooty, dirty London.

All of this is done very well – worked into the story rather than simply dumped on the reader. There is also some quite good characterisation of a few of the working-class residents of the area, in particular of three people caught up unknowingly in the mystery – a young man and the girl he’s trying to woo, and the girl’s young brother, who more than anything wants a ride in the river police’s boat. They humanise the story a little, and it needs it, because otherwise it’s a rather grim and miserable tale. A slice of life that happily most of us will never live, but not so far removed from the everyday as to make it seem unrecognisable.

Josephine Bell

It’s well written and the social commentary aspect is very strong. It seemed to me quite unusual for the era in its concentration on the poor and the working-class – most Golden Age mysteries tend to feature the middle-class, and their working-class characters are often cringe-makingly caricatured. Here they felt true – neither idealised nor denigrated for their poverty or the way they spoke or behaved. Unfortunately the actual crime side of it didn’t work so well for me – it felt rather like an add-on to give the social aspects a focus, and I’m never a huge fan of the type of crime novel where the reader knows more than the detectives. However, it was my first introduction to Josephine Bell, and I enjoyed it enough to want to read more, to see if this kind of rather gritty realism is typical of her style.

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

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36 thoughts on “The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

  1. Oh, this does sound interesting, FictionFan. There’s something really authentic about books that take a look at social conditions of their times, and it sounds as though this one does that. Interesting (for the times) that it takes a look at addiction, too. I respect an author who touches on those difficult topics without sounding too preach-y. And hurrah for an author who presents working-class characters as real people – neither condescending to them nor mocking them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, she really didn’t preach at all – just showed how the drug chain operated and how people got sucked into it, and left the reader to draw any moral conclusions of his/her own. And after a couple of books that had really annoyed me with their depiction of working-class characters it was very refreshing to meet some real ones in this!

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  2. Social Problem Novels are always interesting and revealing as historical documents, and at least Bell doesn’t appear to have resorted to melodrama or sensationalism when providing commentary. Too bad the crime aspect didn’t work so well for you, but it sounds good over all, so I’ll keep it in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I liked the lack of sensationalism – sometimes crime fiction has a tendency to either glamorise crime or make it seem more violent than it really is. That’s why I can’t take many of the Tartan Noir authors – they overdo the gangs and shooting and stuff! I’d definitely be interested in trying some of her other stuff to see if she gets a better balance between plot and social commentary…

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  3. This does sound interesting – I think I would enjoy the social commentary aspects and wouldn’t be so frustrated by the crime element being overshadowed, especially since I now know going in that I probably won’t be blown away by it. And yes, the typical Golden Age mystery doesn’t generally do very well by its working class characters – I’m glad that was better here!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I thought it was interesting that she concentrated so much on a real picture of the working class – maybe a frontrunner of the more kitchen-sink realism of the ’50s and ’60s? Although this is definitely a crime novel, it had more of the feel of general fiction than the Golden Age writers usually have. I’d be interested to try a few more of her novels to see whether this was a one off…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I always prefer the detective to be one step ahead of me, for the fun of seeing if I can get to the truth before all is revealed! But the social commentary in this one held my attention anyway.

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  4. Not sure I want to visit those dreary times (especially when we’re still in a pandemic!), and I don’t like the idea of the crime taking a back seat to the social issues, but this might be worth checking into. I’ve not read any of her works, and you said it was well written!

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    • On the whole, I read vintage crime to get away from the bleakness of a lot of contemporary crime, so this felt a bit too “modern” for my taste in that respect. But I enjoyed the social stuff and would be interested to read some of her other books to see if this is her usual style or a departure for her…

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    • Ha, kids today probably know far more about the trade in illegal drugs than any Golden Age writer ever did… 😉

      (Reminds me of when I worked at the school for boys with behavioural difficulties. One boy always claimed he simply couldn’t do maths, and wouldn’t make the attempt no matter what bribe I offered him. Then one day he was telling me all about what quantities of which drugs you could buy locally with your pocket money (!), and was staggered when I pointed out that he’d been doing adding and division and subtraction without knowing it… 😉 )

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  5. I do like the idea of the wider story and social context this author relates. The Port of London Murders is also in our library – looks like it’s the 1938 published version 🙂 so this is going on my list.

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  6. This sounds interesting in its depiction of a certain time and place that isn’t often focused on. I wonder if the author felt the need to insert a mystery to appeal to a broader audience? Or if she set out to write a mystery first?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I often wonder that about contemporary crime fiction too. It often feels as if the author really wants to write serious fiction but feels s/he has to put a crime in to get an audience. It seems to work too!

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  7. I’m with you FF-I hate when the reader knows more than the police officers or detectives, it kind of feels like ‘what’s the point of them’ if you know more than they do. They are supposed to be the authorities! haha

    Liked by 3 people

  8. You know what? I was on the point of buying this but reading your review I don’t think I’ll bother. I’m not in the mood for grim and what you say about the crime being added on to a slice of social history doesn’t recommend it to me. Thanks for the review.

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