Published by British Library
Publication date – 10 August 2018
Source – review copy
Originally published in 1932, this is the first Crime Classic novel written by an MP. And fittingly, the crime scene is within the House of Commons itself, in which a financier has been shot dead.
Entreated by the financier’s daughter, a young parliamentary private secretary turns sleuth to find the identity of the murderer – the world of politics proving itself to be domain not only of lies and intrigue, but also danger.Wilkinson’s own political career positioned her perfectly for this accurate but also sharply satirical novel of double cross and rivalries within the seat of the British Government.
A wealthy American financier is found shot dead, alone in a room. Initial thoughts are that he killed himself but parliamentary private secretary Robert West isn’t so sure, especially when the financier’s granddaughter insists that it was murder. Bob is soon caught up in trying to uncover the truth, without creating a national crisis in the process.
The setting of the Houses of Parliament lend an air of intrigue to the novel. There is something a little remote and otherworldly about this institution that everyone is aware of but where only a few know the inner workings. This book gives a little glimpse of what it would have been like 80 years ago to walk the halls and in particular give a brief insight into what it may have been like to be a woman MP.
There are moments that are dated but also still relevant somewhat to today. The way women are viewed, particularly in the traditionally patriarchical society of government, was more obvious now than it may have been when the book was first published. However I think that was the author’s intention. She was an MP and would have faced such treatment and thoughtless assumption that her ideals and position were secondary. West is enamoured of Miss Oissel, to the point were he is very nearly blind to everything else. He compares her to his friend Grace, barely noticing how he hurts her in the process.
West is a character that I both liked and disliked in equal measure. He is arrogant but almost unaware of it, which makes it somewhat more forgivable. He is dismissive of women but respects them and his stubborn nature almost means that the mystery remains unsolved.
The murder itself is engaging, the very definition of a locked room mystery. How can a man be murdered in a room when the only means of escape for a murderer is through a door that has three people standing outside? The denouement is given, not with a big reveal with many flourishes, but in a matter of fact manner and is somewhat tongue in cheek given it is not Bob West who finds the final clue to solving the puzzle.
Every book I read in the British Library crime classics has something to recommend it. There is something eminently entertaining about their novels, each one bringing with it a glimpse of the past. The Division Bell Mystery is no different. It is a worthy inclusion into the series.
About the author
Ellen Wilkinson (1891–1947) was a Labour party politician who served as Minister of Education from July 1945 until her death. She was renowned for her spirited defiance of social norms and her impassioned speeches in the House, and was widely respected amongst MPs from each party. She published only two novels in her life; The Division Bell Mystery and Crash!