The Division Bell Mystery

A review of The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

First published in 1932 and now reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, The Division Bell Mystery is Ellen Wilkinson’s one and only stab at detective fiction. As a politician, a Labour MP first elected in 1924 who was involved in the organisation of the Jarrow march and later served as Education minister in Attlee’s post war government, she is well positioned to bring some insight into the workings of parliament and the topography of the building’s warren of rooms. Wilkinson wrote the book after she lost her seat for the first time.

It is a closed room murder mystery with an unusual amateur sleuth in the form of the Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, the Conservative MP Robert West. He is aided and abetted by a firebrand Labour MP, Grace – it is tempting to see a touch of Wilkinson herself in her character – who also seems to be able to open West’s eyes to the iniquities of the system and the sidelining of the role of parliament to greater forces such as finance and capitalism. There is some humour and gentle satire, Wilkinson unable to resist the opportunity to make some political points.

It is a lot of fun and is good on the quirky traditions and customs of the House and its topography. There is a feminist streak running through the narrative, exemplified in Wilkinson’s summary of West’s rather absurd attitude to the modern woman. For me, though, there are too many characters and Wilkinson struggles to make many of them any more than pastiches of stereotypes. More could have been made of West’s friend, Don Shaw, and even the police in the form of Inspector Blackling are pushed to the side.

The book concentrates on the whodunit aspect but the ingenious way in which the American financier, Ossiel, is murdered is barely explained in detail. I am not suggesting we need a detailed breakdown but a sense of how it was pulled off, a trick which, after all, is the crux of the book, would have helped. I was left feeling that Wilkinson just fudged it, hoping that the reveal and the unmasking of the culprit would suffice. It seems all a bit rushed at the end, especially considering the time spent on pursuing red herrings.

Britain is mired in a financial crisis and is trying to negotiate a loan with Georges Ossiel, the American financier. The Home Secretary has a private meal with him in the Commons, in Room J, and leaves him when the division bell sounds. A shot is heard and when the waiter and West enter the room Ossiel is found slumped over the table, shot dead. It is initially thought to be suicide but his granddaughter, Annette, to whom West inevitably takes a shine to, is adamant he would not have topped himself.

At the same time Jenks, whom the Home Secretary has loaned to Ossiel, is found murdered at Ossiel’s flat following a burglary. As investigations proceed, it does seem to be murder. Why had Jenks on the night of the murder had Ossiel’s secret notebook photographed and why had the Home Secretary taken notes from it? Why was Annette so unmoved by her grandfather’s death and what has Kinnaird, who has suddenly come into funds, courtesy of Annette, to do with it all?

A coalition of sleuths, amateur and professional, finally crack the case. An enjoyable book but Wilkinson greater contribution to the welfare of the nation was the resumption of her political career.

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