Friday, February 14, 2020

When Will You Pay Me? The Bells at Old Bailey (1947), by Dorothy Bowers

When Will You Pay Me?
Say the Bells at Old Bailey
--Oranges and Lemons aka The Bells of London (trad. English nursery rhyme)

But I believe you--oh yes.  Women aren't content with suicides.  Nothing short of murder for them.  And we call 'em the gentle sex!
--The Bells at Old Bailey, Dorothy Bowers

In 1947, after an interval of six years since the appearance of her last mystery, Fear for Miss Betony, Dorothy Bowers published what proved to be her fifth and final work of crime fiction, The Bells at Old Bailey.  In remembrance of "the dark years" (presumably the late Second World War, during which she had not published a book), Bowers dedicated the novel to her steadfast English publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, who had issued all her mysteries in England, to much critical acclaim. 

a novel of detection
Hodder and Stoughton edition
On the dust jacket, Bells was pugnaciously subtitled, in the dawning era of the psychological crime story, "a novel of detection," which may have helped spur Bowers' elevation to membership in England's Detection Club.  She died the next year, at the age of forty-six, doubtlessly resulting in the loss to the world of at least several more of the author's quietly literate novels of detection.  So Bells remains our last word on Dorothy Bowers and where she was headed as a mystery writer.  How does it toll for thee?

In a slightly earlier blog piece, I commented about how markedly feminine is the milieu which Bowers presents readers in Fear for Miss Betony.  The same point obtains as well in Bells, although here we see more of the forces of the official--and hence, at that time, mostly male--world of police, doctors and lawyers. 

The main setting is Miss Bertha Tidy's establishment "Minerva's," a hat shop and beauty parlor with cafe located in the village of Ravenchurch.  Miss Tidy's charming cottage, The Keepsake, located in the nearby village of Long Greeting, where she dwells with her Breton housekeeper Leonie, is also a focal point.  With one exception, the main characters--Miss Tidy and Leonie, the girls employed at the hat shop (I was reminded, with them, of Christianna Brand's Death in High Heels), antiquarian bookstore owner Emmie Weaver, tweedy, Dorothy Sayers-ish mystery writer Kate Beaton--are all female. 

The exception is "great novelist" Owen Greatorex, who remains a somewhat amorphous character. There is also clever Inspector Raikes of Scotland Yard, who may have been intended as a new series sleuth; but he mainly struck me for his sweeping sexist comments about women, a proclivity he shares with other male characters in the book.  I think Bowers was making a point here!

Bells has been called a poison pen mystery, by the by, but it really is not, as I define it.  Poison pen mysteries ideally involve masses of anonymous missive sent to various people at a specific location, preferably an English village, making scurrilous and scandalous accusations.  In threatening letter mysteries, like Bells, Philip Macdonald's RIP, Ngaio Marsh's Photo Finish and PD James' The Skull Beneath the Skin, menacing letters are mailed to one specific target, forecasting imminent death or harm.

There have been five recent deaths in Long Greeting, all of them ruled suicides.  These have not been the result of poison pen letters, however, but something else, something rather insidious as well....

corn measures

When the novel opens Miss Tidy is planning a visit to the local police to bring to their attention a couple of anonymous, vaguely threatening letters which she has received.  After she makes her carefully tailored complaint to the police, it's not long before she herself is found dead, battered with a corn measure and strangled with a scarf.  During the heyday of the Golden Age of detective fiction, when bizarre murders rather than subtle psychological delineations were the thing, this might have resulted in the novel being mechanically titled The Corn Measure Murder.  I was reminded of Agatha Christie's early Fifties detective novel Mrs. McGinty's Dead, where the murder weapon was a sugar cutter.

American edition
Bowers is as interested in characterization as well as detection, however; and this is well done on the whole, especially with the splendidly named murder victim Miss Tidy and several other women.  The plot is good, though there are some flaws in my view, which I can get into without spoilers.  There seem to me a few signs of haste around the edges, despite the fact that it is a long detective novel for the period, close to 100,000 words by my count.  Still, I would say that all in all this is a fine mystery that presaged more fine mysteries, but for a life sadly truncated.

A few words on the title.  It references a well-known English nursery rhyme, verses of which provide the headings for chapter titles (more relevantly so than you typically find with other mystery writers, like Gladys Mitchell). 

The dust jacket of the English edition (see above) incorporates the early nineteenth century sampler by young Adelaide Bascomb, age eight, which illustrates the nursery rhyme and hangs in Miss Tidy's quaint, if something less than cozy, cottage.


  1. The doublday dustjackjet id pretty too. Three skulls knocking three bells. J A from Almeria, Spain

  2. This sounds good! I love the idea of beauty parlour, hat-shop and café: three of my favourite settings combined in one.
    'Oranges and Lemons' is a nursery rhyme, but just for interest - it is also a party game for little children. It contains the line 'here comes the chopper to chop of their head', which also gave Gladys Mitchell a title. The children pass under the arched hands of two 'leaders', who bring down their arms on 'chop off her head' to grab one of the line of children. Ideally suited for crime writers looking for a theme - just a surprise that Agatha Christie never used it!

    1. I think you would like it.

      Love the lines "Here Come the Candle to Light You to Bed/Here Comes a Chopper to Chop off Your Head."