The Port of London Murders (book #134)

Josephine Bell (pseudonym of Doris Collier Bell), 1955 (originally 1938).

Josephine Bell on Wikipedia.

A good comparison to the picture of Mayfair in the last book. This is set in the east of London, around Rotherhithe, a very poor area, some streets in the process of being condemned and destroyed. The river is at the centre of the book, “the wharfs and the factories, the cranes, the houses, the walls and the beaches, the fettered ships at their moorings, the heavy, loaded barges, the docks and warehouses and rubbish dumps and old forgotten workings”.

Bell describes the activity on Saturdays: the market with “jellied eels and tiny saucers of whelks and cockles” and beef for Sunday roasts, crowds of shoppers, couples going to the cinema, “The sweet shops, the tobacconists, the hairdressers and the public houses all have their crowds of customers flowing in and out, preparing for Sunday outings, spending the weekly wage”.

But by Sunday morning the noise has gone … The blocks of houses and shops, equally closed, look drearier than ever. … A stranger, travelling along this main road … would reflect gloomily on the huge area of once beautiful country so defaced, and with so little resulting benefit to its occupiers. … [He would not know] that for several miles he had been moving beside the bank of the river Thames.

For in some places along this road going east from Rotherhithe the streets on the left-hand side end at the water’s edge in wharfs, in yards, in scrap-heaps, in narrow jetties, in small bays with promenades flanked by old dwellings, in little streets where the crumbling houses on the Thames’ side stand out into the mud on wooden piles. Beyond them the river stretches and a different world begins.

The grime and squalor and ugliness are still there in the uncouth machinery leaning out over the wharfs, in the heavy work-worn barges, and even in the dark greasy substance of the river itself. But they are changed by the sea air blowing up from the estuary, and are cloaked and hidden by the blue-grey haze that hangs over the banks most of the year round. They are forgotten at the sight of broad swinging water, and sea-gulls turning and dipping to its surface, and the red sails of a barge working upstream from Rochester.

Bell was a doctor who practised in London in the 1920s and 30s, as well as an extremely prolific novelist. The book gives some fascinating details about the workings of the Public Assistance Offices. Two men diagnosed with neurasthenia (the author is clear that one of them is actually ill, but the other is shamming) have to go each day to “the Centre” – not sure what this is, some kind of occupational therapy place or somewhere where they have to work in order to get assistance? They seem to be ordered to go there by the doctor.

There’s also a description of “the Portable X-ray Service”. A rather dodgy character, a riverman whom the River Police suspect of having more money than he should, calls this in when his wife falls on the stairs.

… instead of sending for the ambulance and having her conveyed immediately to hospital, Jim had dispatched a message to his own doctor and at the same time had phoned for the attendance of the Portable X-ray Service. The doctor in the room above watched by the patient’s side, and an admiring crowd below at the corner of Lower Thames Street and Wood Wharf stood around the Portable X-ray Service van, in the interior of which delightful unseen machinery buzzed and throbbed, while men darted in and out of the house, and the X-ray picture was taken through the bedroom window. When, in the ‘Fisherman’ that night, Jim was asked how much the magic van had cost him he only waved his hand and ordered half-pints for everyone present.

I guess this has an ensemble cast. I’d have liked more of Jim. There are two main police officers involved in the detection. There is a love-interest between two local young people, and an enterprising small boy. The finding of one of the bodies is particularly gruesome.

The Passing Tramp has an excellent review of Murder in Hospital, 1937.

I would also like to read Bell’s second novel, Death on the Borough Council.

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