The thing that makes ‘The Division Bell Mystery’, a tale of a murder in the House Of Commons in the late 1920s, worth reading is that it was written by Ellen Wilkinson, one of the first women to be an MP.
Ellen Wilkinson knew the environment and the people she was writing about very well. She was elected as a Labour MP in 1924. She was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Junior Health Minister from 1929-31 (the same role that the hero of the novel performs for the Home Secretary).
She wrote ‘The Division Bell Mystery’ after she lost her seat in 1931. She returned to Parliament in 1936, supported the Jarrow March and served as Minister of Education under Attlee until her death in 1947.
‘The Division Bell Mystery’ is a fairly average locked-room puzzle, with a plot that needs some serious suspension of disbelief and has a heavy dependence on the sexual charisma of young American heiress, whose impact on the men I found unfathomable.
What made this an interesting novel for me was the insight it provided to the Parliament of the day and the gentle wit it displayed, which I found to be far more damning than outrage would have been.
Wilkinson cast Robert West a young, up and coming, Tory MP on the lowest step of the ladder leading to Ministerial rank as the amateur detective tasked with unravelling how a guest of the Home Secretary, an American millionaire, is shot dead while alone in a private dining room in the House of Commons.
I’ve seen reviews of this book that have praised Ellen Wilkinson for picking a young Tory MP as the hero and refraining from scoring party political points. That’s not a view I share. I think Ellen Wilkinson demonstrated very clearly how broken the House of Commons was and she also showed that our earnest young Tory had enough intelligence to know that something is out of kilter but was too much a product of the culture that dominates the House and causes the problem to be able to analyse it.
The House of Commons and the Cabinet that Wilkinson describes is an extension of the culture of Eton and Harrow. Politics is treated as a game where the aim is to make sure your side wins. You need to show your team captains that you’re a Good Chap while avoiding getting into trouble with the prefects. It is so evident to everyone involved that protecting the power and reputation of your team and its leaders takes precedence over everything else that idea of pursuing and exposing the truth is an option only to be exercised if it’s in the interest of your team to do so. This is what being a good chap means and Robert West is a Good Chap above all else, at least until he completely loses all perspective because an overtly sexual woman allows him to take her to lunch.
In this story, we see a known-to-be-stupid Home Secretary exceeding his brief and endorsing criminal behaviour, we see a narcissistic Prime Minister ensuring that the truth is buried in the interest of looking after the Party and his own career. We see the police and the press and a senior industrialist colluding to bring this about. And we see that, while there is some sense that the triggering incident showed regrettably bad form, the ensuing cover-up is seen as statesmanship.
I’m tempted to say that nothing has changed but that’s not true. Things have gotten much worse. Our current crop of corrupt, venal, narcissistic old-Etonians no longer care about getting caught. They focus not on cover-ups but on making sure that getting caught has no consequences. As I read ‘The Division Bell Mystery’, I could see that even ninety years ago, we were on a path where our Prime Minister is a serial adulterer who has been fired twice from civilian jobs for lying and our Home Secretary was fired by the previous Prime Minister for trying cut a private deal with the Israelis and is such a notorious bully that the government had to make a sizeable out of court settlement to a very senior civil servant for how she treated him.
The charming thing about ‘The Division Bell Mystery’ is that it’s not overtly didactic. The main character is a decent young man who believes Parliament is important and who wants to do the right thing. He’s also the embodiment of how Party always comes first and why Parliament has become increasingly powerless in the face of Ministerial ambition.
I’ve picked out some quotes to demonstrate the way Ellen Wilkinson displays Rober West’s thoughts.
Here’s Robert reflecting on the changing status of England, impoverished after the First World War and the rising power of Financiers (Dalbeattie, an English Financier and Tory Party bigwig and Oissel, an American millionaire and Financier:
England, “which Robert through school and university had been trained to think was the centre of the universe, governing itself by its own elected Parliament. Dalbeatties and Oissels held the power now. To them and their like, whatever their nationality, England was but an incident, a set of statistics. The scope of their interests was international.”
I think that analysis is in play again today with ‘The Sovereign individual’ ideology driving the Tory Party sponsors on a path that benefits only billionaires.
West senses that the game is changing and that he doesn’t understand the new rules:
“Not for the first time did Robert West rage angrily against that public-school education which had given him no clue to this new world.”
Then we get West’s impression of the Tory old guard Backbenchers:
“West felt sorry for the old man, his fierce pride, and his patriotism that could only see a little island leading the world.”
Finally, I offer this insight into the mentality of Robert West, a thoroughly decent up and coming Tory Party star. This is him preparing for a discussion on the murder he’s investigating
“Robert felt that he must appear to be frank.”
The strategy of appearing to be frank as a way of getting what you want reminded me of a common piece of advice from my days as a consultant: ‘Sincerity is the most important thing. If you can fake that, the rest is easy.’
If you’re looking for a strong Golden Age Mystery, this is not the book for you. If you’re interesting in seeing the workings of the House in the 1920s from one of the first women MPs, a woman who was one of the leaders of the Jarrow March and who became one of Attlee’s Ministers, you’ll find a lot here to reflect on.