Sunday, 12 July 2015

Penguin no. 464: Death on the Borough Council
by Josephine Bell

There are a great many ladies present in this room, many of whom have brought up, or are bringing up, young families. These ladies will not need to be reminded that the first years of their children's lives were the most anxious ones...Now consider the case of the less fortunate of our residents. They are hampered by lack of means and lack of knowledge. They are hampered most of all by tradition, by obsolete, and often obnoxious ideas, handed down one generation to the next, and given to young mothers with all a grandmother's weight of authority.

For a crime novel, there seemed to be an unusual focus on pregnancy and motherhood in Death on the Borough Council. Two characters are heavily pregnant, and another is a new mother, though a reluctant one. There is also a long passage in the middle of the story - with little relevance to the plot - in which the Councillors of Stepping Borough, excepting the one recently murdered, interview candidates for the position of assistant medical officer in their soon-to-be-opened child welfare and maternity clinic. One candidate is eliminated immediately for being male; another is aware she has little chance of securing the position because she is married.

Josephine Bell was a medical practitioner, and she seems to use this novel to make a point about what she must have considered inappropriate attitudes to prospective motherhood among the working classes. A comparison is being made across classes: the middle-class mother does nothing but rest in the final weeks of her pregnancy and is delivered of a healthy child; the working class mother works herself to exhaustion keeping her house spotless, and risks opprobrium if she fails to do so, and the health of her newborn suffers as a result.

Ground plan of the library
The murder is committed in the most suburban of locations: in the Librarian's office of a community library on the High Street of a newly-developed suburb called Stepping. It had been a rural area on the outskirts of London within living memory, but the advance of the suburbs had meant a change in the kind of people living locally. I do not know if Josephine Bell was a snob, but she creates here characters who certainly are.

The reader is introduced to the suburb through a description of some of the locals. There is Mrs Gunter, a short and overweight elderly woman whose daily life entirely revolves around her afternoon visit to the library to read the latest episode in what sounds like a forerunner of the soap opera in print. There is the hen-pecked corn-chandler Meakin whose 'shop window presented the traditional picture of a corn-chandler's' - whatever that is - and whose only joy in life is breeding rabbits that win trophies at local shows. And there is Joyce Banks, an unmarried mother with little love for her infant.

Mrs Armitage is married to the Librarian and lives in a flat above the library. She is a frustrated wife, bored with a husband who is too satisfied with his position and doesn't, in her view, show sufficient zeal for getting ahead. She has transferred her affections to Councillor Hicks, and counts their affair as the most exciting thing that has ever happened to her. The affair is the scandal of the Borough, but Harold Armitage has turned a blind eye to it for years.

The inside front cover.
But when Councillor Hicks is found stabbed through the neck in her husband's office shortly after they had shared lunch, Mrs Armitage takes to her bed and cannot be consoled. The killer knew what he was doing, attacking Hicks from behind and neatly dissecting his carotid artery. Mrs Armitage is convinced her husband is responsible for the death of her lover, and believes now that her own life is at risk.

But no one could consider Councillor Hicks to have led a blameless life. He had taken full advantage of the potential rewards of serving his community - these included the opportunity to settle grudges in his own favour, to award lucrative contracts to his friends, and to use his power to corrupt the young. Mr Armitage is only one of many locals with both motive and opportunity who would be pleased to see the Councillor dead.

Some remarkable coincidences deliver David Wintringham into the Borough on the day after the murder, enabling him to play at amateur detective and to outwit Inspector Mitchell and the other police officers. It is clear that this is not the first time they have worked uneasily together. Wintringham is in Stepping to work as a locum, and he uses his visits to patients to learn more about the murder than the police manage with their traditional methods.

The story was interesting more for its portrayal of outer-London life in the late 1930s, with its local corruption, snobbish attitudes and naïve belief in modernity. My favourite moment was when the innovative new product known as elastoplast, which the criminal had used to his advantage, had to be described and explained to both the Inspector and the reader.

First published 1937. Published in Penguin Books 1944.


  1. This was Josephine Bell's second published novel. Her first, Murder in Hospital, also featured Wintringham and Mitchell.

  2. Oh dear, just the name is enough to put off anyone who has dealings with local councils in the UK...



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