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