In The Spotlight: Ellen Wilkinson’s The Division Bell Mystery

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some novels give the reader the chance to go ‘behind the scenes’ in a profession, often because the author has experience (e.g. forensic mysteries written by forensic pathologists). That’s the sort of story that Ellen Wilkinson’s The Division Bell Mystery is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.

Parliamentary Private Secretary Robert West is meeting a friend, Donald Shaw, for dinner at the House of Commons. West is due at nine for a parliamentary division – a counting of likely votes on a measure – so he doesn’t have a lot of time. The two men are just passing one of the private dining rooms when the division bell rings. At the same time, West and Shaw hear a gunshot from inside the private room.

The two men rush in to see that powerful American financier Georges Oissel has been shot. He’s alone in the room, but West knows that he’d been dining with the Home Secretary, who is West’s boss. No-one else was in the room, and the first evidence is that no-one has been seen coming or going. In fact, the Home Secretary himself left the room shortly before the shooting, so he could attend the division. On the surface, it looks very much like Oissel committed suicide. And that would be a very convenient explanation as far as many people are concerned.

The forensic evidence doesn’t support that explanation, though, and Inspector Blackitt, who’s in charge of the case, has to follow the evidence. So, he opens an investigation. Since West found the body, he’s ‘of interest’ to the police, and Blackitt sees in him a potentially useful ally. For his part, West wants to find out the truth. If Oissel was murdered, he wants the guilty party found. It’s not trivial, either that the victim’s granddaughter, Annette, is convinced that her grandfather was murdered, and it doesn’t take West long to feel drawn to her.

Little by little, each in a different way, Blackitt and West start sifting through the information they get. It’s soon clear that this case could have major implications. Oissel was being courted for a major loan, so this dinner was important. As that strand of the case is explored, we learn that the consequences for the government could be very serious; there’s even talk of a government downfall. But Oissel was a person, too, with a personal life. And there are possibilities along those lines, too.

Then, there’s another murder, and now West and Blackitt have several questions to face. Who killed the two victims (and are the murders related)? How was the murder committed (since no-one was seen entering or leaving the room at the time in question)? In the end, we learn how and by whom (and why) the murders were committed. And it turns out that several people know more about this case than they let on at first.

Ellen Wilkinson was a Labour Party politician with plenty of experience in Parliament. That experience allows the reader an interesting perspective on the setting and context. Readers get a look at several formal parliamentary procedures, and at a little of the informal give-and-take that’s behind a lot of what happens in Parliament. That context is an important element of the novel and forms the backdrop of much of the story.

Because of the context, there’s also a strong element of politics in the novel. There’s real debate about the direction England is/should be taking. The novel was published in 1932, a few years before WW II, and the US and (then) USSR are emerging as important superpowers. How should the UK respond? What is its role? All of these questions come up in the novel, and it’s interesting to see how the different Members think. Wilkinson was, as I say, a member of the Labour Party, but (at least for me) there isn’t a strong sense in the novel that the Conservatives are the ‘bad guys.’ West is, in fact a Conservative. Much of the story is told through his eyes (third person, past tense), and we see that he doesn’t view ‘the other side’ as ‘evil’ at all. Opponents, yes, but not ‘bad.’

There’s also an interesting look at the changing roles of women, particularly in Parliament. West, for instance, has difficulty adjusting to modern women. On the one hand, he appreciates intelligence, and he’s not at all philosophically opposed to women in government, even in positions of authority. But at the same time, he’s quite traditional in his views about men and women.

‘He preferred the intelligent woman…But while he was interested in her, he expected her ot put her own affairs into the background, and devote herself to his. When she was no longer needed she might be permitted to pick up her own threads again, but she must not trouble him. This he called allowing a woman to live her own life.’

Needless to say, that view doesn’t go down well with thoroughly modern Labour MP Grace Richards, who turns out to be helpful in the case.

Another element of the novel is its focus on the ‘howdunit.’ The victim was alone in a closed room. The Home Secretary had already left the room, and his time is accounted for during the murder. So, how did the murderer manage it? And why didn’t anyone see the killer enter or leave the room?

Of course, this is also a ‘whodunit,’ so there’s also an emphasis on various suspects and their motives. Because of the financial matters involved, this case could go very high up indeed, as the saying goes. And that has strong political ramifications. That means that there are several quiet conversations, late-night meetings, and high-level conferences. You couldn’t really call this a thriller, but there are some questions about who can be trusted and who can’t. And I can say without spoiling the story that there are one or two dangerous moments for West.

The Division Bell Mystery offers a sometimes-witty look at the British Parliament as WWII is in the offing. It features a ‘closed-room’ mystery with international implications, and introduces an amateur sleuth who discovers that government can be a lot more complicated than he thought. But what’s your view? Have you read The Division Bell Mystery? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 18 March/Tuesday, 19 March – The Long-Legged Fly – James Sallis

Monday, 25 March/Tuesday, 26 March – Lay On, Mac Duff – Charlotte Armstrong

Monday, 1 April/Tuesday, 2 April – Full Curl – Dave Butler


Filed under Ellen Wilkinson, The Division Bell Mystery

24 responses to “In The Spotlight: Ellen Wilkinson’s The Division Bell Mystery

  1. Great post, Margot! I read this last year, and also her only other novel “Clash”, and ended up doing a number of posts on her because she was such a fascinating woman. Her views were fiercely left wing and they informed her writing, but I hever felt that they got in the way of her talent for telling a good story. Her works were one of my highlights of the year, and in this particular one I loved the look behind the scenes of Parliament. I think she balanced the mystery and her need to make political points really well! 😀

    • Thanks for the kind words, KBR. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I agree with you that Wilkinson is quite even-handed in this novel. It’s no secret that she was very much left-wing in her views. Still, as I read the book (well, at least this was my view), I didn’t feel that the Conservatives were made out to be ‘bad guys,’ or that their views were being disparaged. That’s not to mention the fact that not all of the left-wing characters in the novel are wonderful people. I thought she did that quite well. And, yes, she was fascinating as a person, too I’m glad you liked the novel. 😀

  2. Spade & Dagger

    This book is a Kindle bargain in the UK today – I’ve just loaded it for myself as the author seems an interesting character too.

    • I hope you’ll enjoy it when you get to it, Spade & Dagger. She was a really interesting person, and I think she offers a fascinating perspective on the workings of Parliament at that time.

  3. I also reviewed this one last year, Margot, and I enjoyed it as much as you seem to have done – I certainly agree that it’s quite well written. I think the one point which really struck me was the fact that the murder was seen as far more of a political problem than a police one, especially by the senior government officials involved – a point which surely frustrated Inspector Blackitt as he tried to reach a conclusion to the case!

  4. I loved this one when I read it last year. I thought the picture she gave of all the strange traditions of Parliament were great and of course, because of her own experience as an MP, authentic. And I loved the sparring between Grace and Robert, especially, as you point out, that they were perfectly able to be friends despite being on opposite sides politically. Oh, for those halcyon days when people could disagree civilly! I also loved the way she showed that all the workings of Parliament at that time were designed around men, and hadn’t got to grips with the idea of women MPs. Not sure that one’s been fully resolved yet… 😉

    • Oh, yes, FictionFan! I remember your excellent review of The Division Bell Mystery! Folks, you want to check that out. You know, you have a very well-taken point about the way that Grace and Robert went back and forth. Yes, they disagreed politically, and both felt strongly. But they kept their friendship and mutual respect. You don’t see that now as much, and I think we sorely miss it as a society. Those traditions and routines of Parliament are definitely a part of the story, too, and it’s clear that Wilkinson tapped her experience. As you say, it feels authentic. As far as the whole business of women MPs (and members of other parliamentary/congressional bodies)? Yes, I think there’s still work to do… 😉

  5. Col

    A minority view, Margot but not one that especially appeals to me I’m afraid.

  6. Sounds like one for me to add to my ever-growing list of books to read.

  7. Reblogged this on DSM Publications and commented:
    Check out this book in the spotlight: Ellen Wilkinson’s The Division Bell Mystery from this post on the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog,.

  8. Andre Michael Pietroschek

    I think your note on the ‘intelligent’ woman, and the warped term of preference (in the abusers mindset) is a splendid reminder. Loving a woman, or respecting mom & sister, has never been about enslaving lackeys after all.

  9. Oh, I do love me a good period whodunnit, and this one sounds like it ticks all the right boxes from what you’ve told us, Margot. So I’m adding it to my list. I really enjoy these kinds of reads, and that look back.

  10. I am definitely going to read this one – what a fascinating opportunity to hear from a real life Member of Parliament exercising her imagination! Was lucky enough to hear a current MP, Rachel Reeves, discussing this book at the Bodies from the Library conference last year.

    • Oh, lucky you, indeed, Moira! I’m sure her talk was fascinating. And I do recommend this one. For me, anyway, it really offered an insight into Parliament at that time. And the mystery itself is interesting, too.

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