The Port of London Murders, by Josephine Bell, is another instalment in the British Library Crime Classics series. First published in 1938, it’s set in, on, and around the Thames – as the title would imply – especially in the grimy slums that were clustered around the docks prior to the war (and post-war new estates). It opens with two barges coming adrift from their fellows in a thick fog. It probably doesn’t matter that much, because they only contain rubber – right? Right? At the same time that a load of crates of almost-definitely-rubber are set adrift in the Thames, Harry Reed, June Harvey, and June’s younger brother Leslie are caught up together through a near-drowning in the Thames, and the novel kicks off accordingly.
For the first seventy pages or so of this book, I completely forgot I was reading a murder mystery. This is not a criticism – Bell is much more interested in the living conditions along the Thames than she is in the murder itself. How, she seems to be asking, do the conditions for a murder arise? That is a fairly modern approach to a crime novel that was written in the 1930s, and I loved it. I could have done without the Cock-er-ney accents being depicted phonetically (and there is a lot of that in the novel), but actually I found that Bell depicted her working class characters in a complex, nuanced way. They aren’t very nice people, mostly – given that they are in a murder mystery, this is unsurprising, and the middle-class characters aren’t that nice either – but they are remarkably real and interesting. The depiction of the appalling housing and hand-to-mouth existence of people struggling on the fringes of society is done very well, and the setting felt very vivid. The interrelationship of physical health, poverty, and underemployment is addressed with remarkable nuance.
On that topic, in fact, I was struck by the all the medical detail in this novel. Bell was a physician, having qualified in 1922, and she practised medicine in Greenwich and London for the early part of her career. Her frustration with the sooty, damp air of London, the squalid conditions that so many people lived in, comes across loud and clear in the novel. At the same time, she doesn’t spare her own profession: none of the doctors in this novel are saintly heroes. They grumble about difficult patients and get frustrated with colleagues and make bad decisions – which makes the novel much more interesting. You can definitely feel Bell’s experience informing the social and medical parts of the novel, and I think that’s where it’s strongest. Also, if you are at all like me, reading this will make you want to reach backwards in time and shower gratitude on anyone who campaigned for universal healthcare and education, for higher quality housing, for the end to the Poor Law. I was surprised that the Poor Law still existed in the 1930s, actually. I don’t know what I thought was in its place, given that the welfare state didn’t really get going until post-war, but I’d had a vague impression that it had fallen out of use after WWI.
Because of the gritty realism of the novel, I’m very glad that the subplot of Harry Reed and June Harvey’s awkward burgeoning courtship is threaded through it, along with young Les’s passionate desire to have a trip in a police river boat. Although I’m not always a fan of romance being shoehorned into novels, it felt pretty natural here and I was rooting for the couple. More than that, though, the novel really is grim in places, and it needs the levity. (People who think classic crime is “cosy”, look elsewhere – there are some pretty nasty scenes in this book). Les in particular is a very enjoyable character – I’m a huge fan of the “young amateur aspiring detective” trope, partly because it’s often much more believable than an amateur adult deciding to take up sleuthing for fun, and partly because the misunderstandings and miscommunications necessary to the genre are much more believable if the person who can’t grasp the full picture is ten rather than forty.
So, do I recommend this? Yes, with caveats: if you like the idea of reading what is effectively an early kitchen sink novel, crack on, but if you read murder mysteries for the puzzles, pick up something different. I enjoyed all the social and medical history in this novel, but the mystery itself is not that interesting. The reader has all the necessary pieces before the detectives do, and there’s no real attempt to obscure either the means or the murderer. It’s not really a mystery novel – it’s a social novel hung around a mystery, and not very expertly at that. I’ll definitely be reading more of Bell, as I’m fascinated by her style and her preoccupations, which seem to be very different from many of her contemporaries.