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The Division Bell Mystery

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 5 months ago

Wilkinson, Ellen - The Division Bell Mystery (1932)


The Division Bell Mystery (1932) is the main detective novel of Ellen Wilkinson. It reminds one of the work of the Coles. Like the Coles, Wilkinson was active in left wing politics - she was a Labour M.P. for over twenty years in Britain. Her book has the satiric tone of the Coles' work, and its focus on members of the British high life. There is a sly sense in both the Coles and Wilkinson that the British ruling classes are full of eccentrics that shouldn't be allowed to run a small firm, yet alone a great country. Also that they are quite willing to cover up the most outrageous messes - see the Coles' The Blatchingford Tangle (1926), for instance.


Wilkinson's novel has a Background: The House of Commons, and government ministries that relate to it, such as the Home Office and Number 10 Downing Street. Wilkinson knew this background from first hand, from sitting in Parliament. Like other authors of the Realist school, she drew her Backgrounds from her own personal experience.


The solution to the murder in the novel also recalls the Coles' techniques. It is perfectly sound technically. However, it is unbelievable that Scotland Yard would not have found the solution long before they do in Wilkinson's story. In fact, without giving away the solution of the story, the Yard's failure to find the missing clue right away seriously misleads the reader, and functions as a failure of fair play. Because of this, no one can consider Wilkinson's book a landmark in the history of impossible crime fiction.


Much better handled is the subplot about the notebook. The notebook business is also better integrated with the political Background in the story, leading to some of Wilkinson's best satirical chapters.


Many of the political attitudes of the Tory M.P. hero seem annoying today. His passivity in terms of doing any political action for anyone seems defeatist. He seems to believe, that since the glory days of the British Empire are over, that there is no point in doing anything for anybody. All he seems to value is the raw power the Empire once had. He is also merely perplexed by the poor people marching for bread in the story, regarding them as a conundrum. But he regards the fall of Britain's great country houses due to taxes and modern expenses a cultural tragedy. This genuinely upsets him. One can see that we are in a country, that even in the throes of the Depression, that still regards the upper classes as more real and more important than the lower. One wants to shake this guy, and tell him the real cultural tragedy is the way Britain never educated its poor people.


There are three woman characters in the story. One is a young Labour M.P., perhaps a portrait of Wilkinson herself. She is self-made from a poor background, decent, hardworking, and intelligent. She keeps trying to help the hero, with whom she is in love. Another is the heiress, with whom the hero falls in love. She has few virtues other than being rich, pretty and well dressed in a series of high fashion outfits. Despite this, the hero is immediately besotted with her, and stays so, despite any revelations about her less than admirable behavior. Admittedly, love is not under rational control, and the hero is going to love whom he feels like. Still, it is hard not to see ideas about class and gender underlying his feelings, ideas that seem really offensive. Wilkinson's novel suggests that sinister social forces underly the mating dance, that it is a heavily politicized activity. A third character is an older woman, a heiress who married into the aristocracy, and who has become an influential hostess. She is clearly a portrait of the young heiress' future. She also treats the young woman M.P. with terrible scorn. This sort of political hostess is clearly what the British political system wants women to be. They are not supposed to get involved in politics directly, unlike the woman M.P., rather they are just supposed to hostess political gatherings and be rich.


Mike Grost.

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