Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Some Bells Toll for Me: Such a Nice Client (1977), A Swan-Song Betrayed (1978) and The Innocent (1982), by Josephine Bell

"No one is basically wicked, Elaine.  We were taught that and I still believe it...."

     --Mrs. Chandler, almost pathologically naive social worker, in Such a Nice Client (1977), by Josephine Bell

The 1970s and 1980s were lean times for admirers of the detective fiction of the Golden Age writers, unless they were content to reread the old books. For the most part, the old boys and girls weren't writing new stuff, even if they were still alive and kicking (and few of them were).

Agatha Christie's Curtain and Sleeping Murder were great events for classic crime fiction fans, though of course we learned that they weren't newly composed works.  I was eleven years old when I first read Curtain and Sleeping Murder in paperback in 1977; I had been introduced to Christie paperbacks as an 8-year-old tyke by my mother in 1974 in Mexico City, where my family and I were then residing for a year. 

By 1978 and 1979, I, avid bookworm that I was, was ravenously devouring all the Christies I could lay hands on; she was my "series" reading staple at that time, after I had lost interest in the OZ books of L. Frank Baum and the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder and before I got interested in the fantasy and sci-fi fiction of JRR Tolkien and Frank Herbert.  How I loved Poirot and, to a lesser extent, Miss Marple. (Tommy and Tuppence, on the other hand, just seemed plain dotty to me, though I did like feisty and facetious "Bundle" Brent.)

By the time I started reading Ngaio Marsh in the 1980s, the New Zealander had passed away just a few years earlier, in 1982.  I didn't really like her much compared to Christie, because the few books by her that I read seemed interminably full of what Robert Barnard memorably termed "Marshy inquisitions" about who was where when.  I loved Dorothy L. Sayers, however, barring the moiderless and lovey-dovey Gaudy Night, and over about a year I read every bit of mystery she ever stitched.  But Dot had died long ago when I first picked up a book by her, and her mysteries had petered out even farther back in time. (Not long after my parents were born.)

Even very late Golden Age writers (arguably more Silver Age) like Christianna Brand and Elizabeth Ferrars I started reading just after their respective passings.  John Dickson Carr had been dead for over a dozen years when I discovered his fantastic murder fiction.  Ellery Queen I only started after the death of the longer surviving half of the team, Frederic Dannay, though I had enjoyed the Jim Hutton/David Wayne Ellery Queen television series when it originally aired (back when I was first reading Agatha Christie).

There were some true Golden Age writers who were still active in 1970s and even 1980s, but I didn't know about them.  Anthony Gilbert's last mystery was published in 1974, a year after her death. Had she survived to her eighties she would probably still have been producing into the 1980s, as did, in fact, two other hardy Golden Age ladies, Gladys Mitchell, whose last detective novels were published posthumously in 1984, and Josephine Bell, who published her last crime novel at the age of 85 in 1982. (She died five years later, in 1987, when she was nearly 90.)

picking at the crusts of the Golden Age

Josephine Bell's last seven crime novels, published between 1975, the year Hercule Poirot with the hardcover appearance of Curtain passed on to that great crime scene in the sky, and 1982, are an interesting group of books, though variously successful.  Bell's first mystery, the once much-lauded Murder in Hospital, had appeared way back in 1937.  A widowed doctor with several children, Bell, like PD James, was a late, but long-lasting, arrival to crime fiction.

Bell was someone who grew bored with the "classic" clue-puzzle detective and over her long writing career veered more into the crime novel form, in addition to writing both "straight" novels and, later in life, period novels set in the Tudor and Jacobean eras.

Daring to do what Christie would not (Poirot was too popular and lucrative), Bell ruthlessly ditched her series sleuth, Dr. David Wintringham, who appeared in a dozen mysteries between 1937 and 1958 (half of them, including Murder in Hospital, from 1937 to 1940 and half from 1944 to 1958).  She tried a few other short-lived series sleuths, one of whom, elderly retired stage actress Amy Tupper, appeared in two of her very late books, Wolf, Wolf! (1979) and A Question of Inheritance (1980), which I'll be talking about here later; but she wrote far more non-series works, many of which are more in the nature of crime novels than classic detective fiction.

Three of these examples are from late in her career: Such a Nice Client (1977), A Swan-Song Betrayed (1978) and, her final novel, The Innocent.  (Her subpar American publisher, Walker, though it needed to sex up these titles to remind readers they were, after all, murder stories: Client became Stroke of Death, Swan-Song became Treachery in Type, and Innocent became A Deadly Place to Stay.)  I had read, and quite enjoyed, Client some years ago and, having read the other two books back in April and been disappointed with them, decided to reread Client, which I again, I'm happy to say, enjoyed very much.

perhaps the young woman (left) is horrified by the cover to A Swan-song Betrayed (right)

A Swan-Song Betrayed has a promising set-up, involving a woman who was briefly a bestselling mainstream novelist in the later 1930s attempting to make, late in life, a comeback, after decades of having written nothing.  She rashly employs a young woman typist with numerous shady friends, two of whom involve her in a plot to steal her employer's novel and publish it as her own.

Plagiarism is an interesting subject, especially for someone like me, who has been the victim of plagiarism; but the plagiarism plot just kind of peters out, as does the focus on the elderly author, as Bell transfers her interest to the hoods and con artists in the typist's world.  There is a murder, but it feels perfunctory.  (Another, admittedly more incidental, debit for this book for me is the absolutely hideous Hodder cover.)

It's obvious that Bell was, like a lot of people of her generation (my grandparents' generation), deeply disturbed by the chaos which they discerned all over the world in the 1970s (as if there hadn't been a few problems here and there back in the 1930s). 

Bell addressed juvenile delinquency in a sociological study, Crime in Our Time (1962), and in her Seventies crime fiction.  Like many of her generation, Bell was a tough cookie, hardened by hard times, and she tended to fault what she deemed the sentimentality and social permissiveness of the 1970s for such problems as violent crime, drug use, out-of-wedlock birth and poverty. 

These concerns often found tart and blunt expression in Bell's later novels, reminding me of my late friend Helen Szamuely, an outspokenly conservative blogger and mystery reader who passed away in April.  I don't actually know whether she read Josephine Bell, but I think she must have enjoyed her if she did.  Although there are ongoing revisionist efforts, including those by Martin Edwards as well as some of my own, to nuance the conservatism of British Golden Age detective novelists, there is still no denying that a great many of them were indeed conservatives who were greatly shaken by the new order that arouse after the Second World War.

Josephine Bell's The Innocent is a more interesting book than Swan-Song, having something of the feel of one of Ruth Rendell's later (and much longer) social problem crime novels.  Here Bell looks at the life of a thoroughly unappealing teenage girl runaway.  After nearly killing (inadvertently) an old woman from whom she was stealing, she ends up in the home of an oddball fringe Christian sect, which she soon learns is more of a cult that is presided over, most dangerously, by a messianic leader with a penchant for sadism. (He likes to brand disobedient women sect members, for example.)

This was at the time very timely subject for a crime novel (the horrific mass suicide of Jim Jones' and his tragically deluded followers had taken place four years earlier), and Bell handles confused (or "innocent," in the sense that they are bereft of morals instruction from higher authority) modern young people better than, say, Agatha Christie did (see Third Girl), though this is setting, I think, rather a low bar. Actually, though, Bell allows her characters to use the f-word more than PD James and Ruth Rendell ever did!

Again, there is a late murder, but, although it's a smidgen more interesting than the one in Swan-Song, it still has something of a tacked-on feel. (There also a nice boy-girl team of cops investigating, providing some of the romance that a lot of people want in their mysteries.)

More clarion than either of the above Bells, however, is Such a Nice Client, published four decades ago, when Bell was eighty years old.  What lifts this one up for me is the medical milieu, about which Bell as an expert, and the author's splendidly tart and trenchant writing.

menaces, menaces
I'll admit that, on rereading the novel, it especially interested me because the partial focal character is a nice, even noble, young physical therapist working with geriatric patients. This is an occupation about which I have become quite familiar of late, because of my father's health issues. (There's also a good bit of reference to speech therapy.)

It's certainly a striking opening the book offers: Lucy Summers arrives at The Old Farmhouse to keep a rehab appointment with old Mr. Lawrence, speechless and confined to a wheelchair since his recent stroke, and his stylish daughter-and-law and caregiver, Dorothy.

Mrs. Lawrence is nowhere to be seen, but old Mr. Lawrence is in his chair in the back garden beside the bird table.  As a horrified Lucy looks on, she sees the stroke victim with his one good hand scatter the birds and grab the bread crusts off table, before ravenously stuffing them into his mouth. 

Is the elderly man being starved or is he simply suffering from dementia?  Doctors and nurses investigate, but they have to contend with an astoundingly dense social work administrator and her unfathomably incompetent underling.

During the course of the novel there are three murders and enough twists and turns to keep things quite lively for the reader (and quite deadly for the characters).  But also notable in Client is the scorn that Bell expresses for a social work bureaucracy that she sees as too often stymieing the proper authority of doctors.  As Bell's fellow crime writer HRF Keating put in in a review of the novel: "...plenty of sharp smacks for social services paranoiacs plus neat mystery."

Special pleading on Bell's part if you like, but the doctor and novelist is not one to mince words on the subject:

Miss Carr was small and dark with a pinched little face that had not changed much since her early childhood and would stay about the same for the next thirty years.  People wishing to be kind to her had called her "knowing" when she was very young.  Later they were less inclined to use an adjective of such doubtful worth.  For Molly Carr did poorly at school at all those subjects where exact knowledge was essential. Her wayward mind floated uncertainly hither and thither without any particular direction.  Her imagination was lively; she produced a few remarkable infant drawings and paintings.  Later one one or two poems in entirely free verse astonished her teachers by the striking misuse of some long words they did not expect her to know and in some cases had themselves to look up in the dictionary.  Possible it was this collection of insubstantial artistic triumphs that won her a place in a minor college where she elected to pursue Social Studies.  The result was a diploma and further training.  Miss Carr continued to enjoy meeting vague, large ideas.  She continued to be incapable of observing or learning any single detail of exact knowledge about anything.

But the diploma earned her a job.  Having passed through several spheres of activity where her deficiency appeared to be much greater than her worth, she discovered a final interest in the great, heaving, clouded sea of human psychology.  Another course, another diploma and Miss Carr, as a psychiatric social worker, was ready to paddle about in shallow waters of that ocean where Dr. Faiclough took his lifecraft on its desperate ventures.

It's the kind of passage I think Helen Szamuely would have appreciated.  Josephine Bell could always deliver one formidable burn.


  1. Thanks for the introduction to Josephine Bell. :) Has she written many, or any, "classic" clue-puzzle mysteries you would recommend?

    1. Hi, Jonathan, I'm going to separately post on that, with some suggestions for you,

    2. There, Jonathan, got another Bell post for you! More to come soon.

  2. I struggle with Josephine Bell. I enjoyed one of her novels, with reservations, earlier this year, but when I try to pick up another, I am usually stymied by her attitudes to people. It's not really political; it's just that I find it so difficult to like her heroines when they are "repulsed" and "revolted" by people who are shabby or poor or speak with funny accents or worse. In one of the novels I tried to read there was a "repulsive" family of Holocaust survivors, which less than pleasant to read. She's a good writer, but in some ways she makes even Christie look like a free-loving liberal.

    1. Which was the Holocaust survivors book, I dont recall that one, yikes. Of course in A Murder Is Announced Christie had Mitzi, the Central European refugee, whom she treats, rather unattractively, as a comical incompetent, and Miles Burton had a very similar character in a contemporary book, one Lotti. On the blog I wrote about Bell and some of those attitudes in her book Murder in Hospital, a book I liked, even though there was some of that unappealing snobbery from the characters.

      Her penultimate book, which I just read, has Italians, more sympatheticallyy treated, and I'm reading one from the Fifties, where the wife is kind of of a nit, frankly.

  3. The unappealing Jewish family appears in The China Roundabout/Murder on the Merry-go-round. The heroine and her mother inherit a boarding house full of eccentric characters in that one, which is a very promising premise, but it all goes to hell when the boarders are all portrayed as unsympathetic by dint of being working class, and the heroine, Eileen, is a colorless, characterless person. Very disappointing -- I wanted to like it so much.

    1. I read that one some years ago and am seeing some passages I marked! That was a very well reviewed book too, with high praise from Elizabeth Bowen and others. Interesting how dome of those attitudes seem to have gotten a pass in the Fifties. I think some of the attitudes associated with the Golden Age held on longer then some people think. I'm looking at a couple of others by her from the 1950s, one of which I'd read before, and the social attitudes make for interesting, if not always pleasing, reading.

    2. Christopher Pym in The Spectator objected to Bell's attitudes:

      "Mrs. Bell always writes competently, and sometimes beautifully; pity that her plot should be quite so old-fashionedly improbable, and that she should make it so patent that such of her own creations as aren’t English, upper-middle-class, Gentile and chaste are ‘horrors,’ ‘curious’ or ‘abnormal’."