Posts Tagged ‘Ellen Wilkinson’

I was fortunate to have two Ellen Wilkinson novels come into my life around the same time. Both of them were part of bookish secret Santa parcels, the first; The Division Bell Mystery was Ellen Wilkinson’s only published mystery novel. A few days after receiving this book I was delighted to unwrap Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, a VMC edition I hope to read fairly soon, one of the books in my Librarything Virago secret Santa which Liz chose for me. Clash, published a few years before this one, depicts the General Strike from the point of view of a woman trade unionist. I am looking forward to it.

Ellen Wilkinson was a Labour MP, first elected in 1924, she became a key figure in the Jarrow March and supported the general strike. During the war she served as a junior minister in Churchill’s coalition government, later as her health was failing was appointed as Education Minister by Clement Atlee in Labour’s post war government.

Wilkinson was perfectly placed therefore to write a mystery novel with a political element to it, the fact she manages to slide a little satire into the story which she sets in the House of Commons makes it all the more enjoyable.

“But, sir, I’ve often wondered why more people don’t get murdered in this place when you think of the opportunities.”

Up and coming young politician Robert West is parliamentary private secretary to the Home Secretary. On the day his old friend Donald Shaw arrives at the House of Commons for dinner, the Home Secretary is meeting American financier Georges Oissel in a private dining room. Before the nine o’clock division bell rings calling members to vote – Robert and the Home secretary are two among many members who hurry off to do their duty, and it is at that very moment that Georges Oissel is shot and killed in a room empty of anyone other than himself. Robert and his old friend are just outside the door of the room where the dead man is discovered, and with Oissel’s gun lying on the floor, at first everyone assumes the millionaire must have taken his own life.

However, Oissel’s glamorous grand-daughter insists her grandfather would never have taken his own life. Soon, the police are led to believe that perhaps Mr Oissel was in fact the victim of murder after all. At the time the murder was committed the victim’s house was in the process of being burgled and a manservant on loan from the Home Secretary killed at the scene apparently in defence of Oissel’s private papers. Poor West is rather dazzled by Oissel’s granddaughter Annette’s elegance and her insistence that her grandfather must have been murdered. It is soon apparent that we are in the midst of an ingenious locked room mystery.

Bit by bit, Robert West is drawn deeper into the mystery, aiding the sensibly humane Inspector Blackitt in his investigations. Sir George Gleeson the head of the civil service, deeply concerned with the potential diplomatic consequences oversees the progress of the case. Placed as he is, in the House of Commons, Robert is quite able to sneak about making enquires, asking questions and calling in favours. One of his friends is Grace Richards; a member of parliament from the opposition benches (I couldn’t help but see this as a self portrait for Wilkinson herself) whose help Robert enlists.

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? He came from an old political family. Had one of the women of his family ever asked why she should help?”

 Here we see (slightly tongue in cheek, I felt) the depressing attitudes of the time. Grace is a brilliant character and I would have enjoyed seeing more of her in this novel. Lady Bell-Clinton is another brilliantly drawn creation – (a Lady Astor perhaps?) and adds perfectly to the atmosphere of the House of Commons at this time, which was of course largely inhabited by the political male.

“Lady Bell-Clinton took an impish joy in inducing the most extraordinary people to mix together, but the party that Robert West found on this occasion was one of her super-respectable kind. It included a Cabinet Minister with a wife who must surely have been to her christening in a robe of black crêpe de Chine and old lace; a couple of City men whose wives were not in evidence;  a champion lady golfer; and Lord Dalbeattie, a member of the synthetic aristocracy whose peerage had been made for him only six months previously.”

Enquiries reveal a missing notebook containing notes written in code, figures lurking in dark corridors at the house late at night and papers hidden in the Home Secretary’s office. West takes Lord Dalbeattie into his confidence, and in him finds a man willing to get things done, even if feathers are a little ruffled.

The ending when it comes is fiendishly clever (albeit a tiny bit improbable) though the final unravelling felt just a little bit rushed. Nevertheless, The Division Bell Mystery is very readable and particularly fascinating for its setting and those thinly disguised political portraits.

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