Ellen Wilkinson was a Member of Parliament and her insider knowledge informs The Division Bell Mystery, a mystery published in 1932 when the UK was reeling in the Great Depression. As it opens, the Home Minister is meeting with an old friend who has become a wealthy financier, softening him up, he hopes, to make a generous loan to the government. When he steps out to cast a vote, his friend is murdered though how is anybody’s guest. It’s not technically a locked-room mystery, but as it features a man sitting in a room alone where many witnesses hear the shot and see no one leave the room, it is basically a locked-room without the lock.
Complicating matters, the victim Oissel’s home is burgled and the Home Secretary’s favorite guard who had been on loan to Oissel is also murdered. Of course, Scotland Yard is on the case ruling out the much more convenient explanation of suicide. The Home Secretary sets his Parliamentary Private Secretary, another Member of Parliament, Robert West on the job of working with the Yard to solve the murder with the least embarrassment possible.
Robert West is an affable and competent young Member and he is diligent enough. Thankfully, he enlists enough friends and acquaintances who do most of the heavy lifting to the mystery is eventually solved. Along the way, he falls in love unwisely with a femme fatale of sorts who seems to delight in adding more fish to her string while obtusely ignoring a much better candidate who clearly must love him. Oh, if only there were a sequel!
I enjoyed Ellen Wilkonson’s acerbic bite which she inflicted on her fellow members of Parliament. I am not well-versed enough in that era’s parliamentary characters, but I have a feeling some of them will be recognizably caricatured. She must have despised pretension and time-wasting and it comes through in her book. If you are both interested in policy and frustrated by those who legislate it, you will snicker more than once.
The mystery is fair, fair enough that you might begin to think Robert West is a bit thick. He is certainly indiscreet, though perhaps if he were not he might never have informed smarter and wiser folks who helped solve the mystery. Some characters do not do much to further the plot or as red herrings to confound the mystery. One, in fact, seems a likely Watson if this had become a series, but as a single book, he seems superfluous. Of course, if such a series had been planned, I think West needed some skill-sharpening because he was better at collecting information than seeing the big picture to know what it means.
I enjoyed the parts about parliament and how it works or fails to work far more than the mystery, but that was mostly because Robert West was just not the sharpest pencil in the drawer of characters.
I received an e-galley of The Division Bell Mystery from the publisher through NetGalley.