Thursday, March 14, 2019

"The Division Bell Mystery" by Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947) was a Labour member of the British Parliament and, at the time of her death, Minister of Education in the Cabinet. She was associated with a number of worker, education, and women’s causes, including what became known as the Jarrow March, a demonstration by the unemployed that culminated in a march from the Manchester area to London. 

For a brief time in the late 1920s and early 1930s, she was out of office, and one of the things she did was to write a mystery novel, The Division Bell Mystery, published in 1932. The British Library recently republished the novel as part of its Crime Classis series. Wilkinson had been a fan of murder mysteries and especially those of Agatha Christie, and she tried her hand at writing one. It’s not a perfect mystery, but it an entertaining one, and it’s filled with details about the workings of Parliament.

Robert West is a young Member of Parliament who serves as Personal Private Secretary to the Home Office Secretary. He’s showing an old friend around Parliament, and they’re near the private dining rooms when the division bell rings, signifying the need for MPs to return to the House of Commons for a vote. It’s 9 p.m.; Big Ben begins to chime at the same time. And so does what clearly sounds like a gunshot.

Ellen Wilkinson
West and his friend discover the body of an American financier, who had been having dinner with the Home Secretary. At first, the death appears to be suicide, but the police come to realize that it’s murder. Then they learn that the dead man’s flat had been burglarized at the same time, and a security man killed there. 

Because of his position with the Home Secretary, West finds himself helping to investigate the murder and burglary and navigating romantic entanglements at the same time. And it’s through West’s eyes that we come to see not only a large number of suspects but also some of the inner workings of Parliament. (There’s even a character who’s an MP and has the same political inclinations as the author.)

The identification of the killer gets a little hurried at the end, but The Division Bell Mystery is still a worthwhile and rather fun read. This new edition by the British Library includes a preface by Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West, and a solid introduction on politics in Golden Age detective fiction by crime writer Martin Edwards.

Related: Red Ellen, a biography of Ellen Wilkinson, by Laura Beers (2016).

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