I heard about The Division Bell Mystery fairly soon after arriving at the House of Lords to join the ranks of those who “have to be in the House but not of it”. Although it’s almost 90 years old, the book is widely remembered in that small orbit, and I absorbed the fact of its existence as a piece of trivia to pass on, in due course, to newer, greener officials.
But it was only as the clock was counting down to my own departure from Parliament, nearly a decade later, that I picked up Ellen Wilkinson MP’s only novel.
The novel’s place in 1930s crime fiction
Republished in 2018 as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, The Division Bell Mystery was published during Wilkinson’s time out of Parliament (1931–34). It reflects some of her longing for both the place and the intrigues of politics while she was on the outside, which I identified with as my own time walking the Parliamentary estate freely ended.
Wilkinson’s novel reflects the hubbub of an inattentive organisation that needs piercing sounds to cut through: division bells, doorkeepers’ shouts, and members chuntering at each other in the chambers.
Wilkinson offers a frank cross-section of political life, from the intimacy of journalists and politicians to the fractious closeness of politicians and civil servants, as well as relations ‘across the floor’, and anxieties about the safety of Parliament and politicians. The novel is perhaps well remembered in Westminster because so little has changed, for better or worse, and reading it certainly makes you feel like an insider.
Compared to other period crime novels featuring politicos, like Anthony Berkeley’s Death in the House (1939) and Robert Gore-Browne’s Death of an MP! (1927; the novel goes now by a variety of reprint titles), Wilkinson’s title hints at a little-recognised fact of time spent in Westminster: that sound governs Westminster and sets it apart from other political spaces.
Big Ben’s bongs used to summon members from a draughty corridor into my office at 2 pm each day. When they were disabled for the restoration of Elizabeth Tower, it was a shock to the community in surprising ways (the absence of Brexit bongs that agitated some MPs being the least of it).
Wilkinson’s novel reflects the hubbub of an enormous, inattentive organisation that needs piercing sounds to cut through: division bells, doorkeepers’ shouts during processions, and members chuntering at each other in the chambers. Sometimes those noises are savage, as in Wilkinson’s novel, and sometimes they are merely gross, but they define the place.
Politicians know best?
The plot of Bell is a relatively straightforward locked-room mystery. Reclusive Basque-American financier, Georges Oissel, is shot while alone in one of the small dining rooms of the Commons, his host, the Home Secretary, having gone up to vote in a scheduled division.
Robert West MP finds himself drawn into the investigation because that is simply what happens to a Minister’s bagman: they are drafted in to tackle any little bit of bothering a Minister gets into that can’t be handled by civil servants.
The novel is by no means autobiographical, but it reflects how personal politics are, and fiction proves a more honest medium than a memoir might. Wilkinson draws on her experience as Susan Lawrence’s Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Ministry for Health to build the character of West, her novel’s ostensible hero.
She puts West on ‘the other side’, as a Tory, but he is no partisan caricature, even though Bell bears some of the same incisive wit as Wilkinson’s earlier Peep at Politicians, a collection of pen-portraits of her fellow politicians published in 1930. Those echoes illustrate an underlying theme of the novel, addressed sometimes with great subtlety and sometimes rather heavy-handedly: what do politics make of the people in it?
Both West and Wilkinson’s narrators express scepticism about the general usefulness of civil servants, echoing the common refrain from the political side that they stand in the way of getting things done. This is embodied in the mysterious Gleeson, the Home Office’s Permanent Secretary. But it comes to a head in an uncharitable portrayal of the Home Secretary’s official Private Secretary, Briggs.
Briggs tells West that even a revolution would not undermine the Civil Service, which “merely goes on doing the job”, while “you politicians think you can improvise government like jazz on a piano”.
Briggs may have a point then and now. Civil servants work for the least strategically run organisation in the country. Policies can change on a whim of politicians who are “the chief of a fleeting hour”. But civil servants must embrace every hobby horse of a political master as though it were the best policy ever invented.
It is rather a miracle that anything gets done at all, Briggs suggests. It’s not entirely clear that Wilkinson agrees (her portrayal of Gleeson and some of West’s grumblings suggest otherwise), but she does give the counterargument in a fairly straight way, and the novel as a whole suggests that politicians spend little time doing anything productive.
This is compound by the novel’s interesting failure to comply with some of the conventions of the amateur-detective genre. There are no idiotic police officers here with whom West can compete. And although West thinks of himself as an amateur detective and is involved in part of the investigation, he certainly doesn’t solve the case.
If anything, the competent Inspector Blackitt is held back, “checkmated”, by the politicians, who withhold information. He quickly puts paid to the politicians’ initial assumption-cum-hope that Oissel committed suicide and pursues further inquiries, which West obstructs just in case the truth is politically inconvenient.
Hard lives, hard decisions, hard hearts
Politicians’ arrogance, then, is at the heart of Wilkinson’s novel: their belief that they and their circumstances are special, different, beyond the ordinary run of things. West’s misbelief that he can play detective effectively, and the Home Secretary’s desire to avoid the consequences of his own actions, create a web that nearly allows the murderer to go unpunished.
But Wilkinson also provides an apologia for that arrogance. Not just the commonplace influence of a femme fatale — West is bewitched, or “checkmated” by the victim’s granddaughter, Annette, until the end— but also the seductive nature of power, being close to the action, ‘saving’ a country in trouble. The novel tries to disclaim that seduction.
We’re told that “all government is an elaborate game of bluff, and to the men who are on the inside of the pretence the bump of reverence is worn to a hollow”. But recognition of that hollowness is no protection.
Wilkinson is also clear-sighted in her portrayal of politicians’ self-indulgence as apparent recompense for what is, unarguably, a hard job, including (for some) living in digs, being barely paid, finding themselves at the mercy of the Whips at all hours, and campaigning all the while.
Inspector Blackitt sympathises with West about these hardships: “after my experience this week I’d rather be sentenced to penal servitude than to Westminster”. But West knowingly retorts:
“You must admit we do ourselves pretty comfortably” and “see to it that the restrictions that apply to every other pub don’t apply here”, which “helps to make life bearable”.
Irrespective of their own economic circumstances, however, all the politicians in the novel seem sheltered from the realities of the consequences of politics, just as is the case today. That means Bell wears its historical context lightly.
The country’s dire need of money is the pretext for Oissel’s presence in the House and his murder becoming of political importance, but aside from West’s encounter with a bread march, the consequences of that national position are absent.
That solipsistic self-indulgence blossoms into Lady Bell-Clinton’s one-rule-for-us attitude in the novel’s denouement.
“You can’t take a waiter’s word against [an MP’s]”, she warns the police; to do so would be “monstrous”.
She is ushered quietly out of the room, rather than rebutted, to avoid the embarrassment that she has said the quiet part out loud in front of political outsiders.
The novel recognises how disappointing these facts may be to the typical person ‘represented’ by their MP, just as they disappointed me and my fellow officials in Westminster all the time. West’s outsider friend, Shaw, attends various scenes seemingly just to provide this sort of perspective.
He feels “rather hopeless” about the cynicism that has captured West, who possesses “brains and a high sense of duty” but sees politics, and government, as a matter of “bitter helplessness” in which various points of view and plans tussle, fragment, and “fight it out”, without the winner necessarily being the one with most merit.
Shaw chooses to “continue to believe in the House of the Commons” as a register of those divergent views if nothing else. But that spark of faith emerges after Shaw has rather ignored all of West’s other cynical asides that imply that many politicians are largely indifferent to the actual matters on which they make decisions.
West says casually to him, excusing himself to vote: “There’s another of these financial crises hovering in the wind”. Having not been part of the debate, how does he know which way he ought to vote? Wilkinson doesn’t press the matter, but the answer is simple: he’ll just vote with his political tribe, who must surely be ‘right’ in the matter.
Wilkinson’s novel suggests that politics make its people hard, even (dare I say it?) ‘hardboiled’. Not through a cycle of violence, as in the hardboiled crime fiction of the ‘30s, but through a cycle of sheer noise. The bells demand your answer — ‘aye’ or ‘nay’, ‘content’ or ‘not content’, depending on the House — whether you know what the question is or not.
Follow the shouted directions of the doorkeepers. Speak, or don’t, depending on the ebb or flow of the rolling noise of your fellow politicians around you. And yet, Wilkinson— and her political fellows, real and imagined — persisted. Whether that is blind arrogance or daring optimism may simply depend on whether we choose to join Shaw in continuing to believe.
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