The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell
In the 1930s the Port of London on the busy Thames brought together many people. The socialite with a dubious addiction, the very poor, those making a living from the vessels which moved around the area. In this 1938 novel, now republished in the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, the plot is satisfyingly twisty, the setting three dimensional in its sight, smell and texture and the characters remarkable. As conscientious police officers, overworked doctors and people from across the social spectrum become involved in the hunt for mysterious cargo, the fog swirls around the river and its environs. This is a murder mystery which is resolutely set in a place far away from a country house; instead it features condemned housing which holds too many people and glimpses into the world of the bored women who had more money. If, as Martin Edwards points out in his informative introduction, “For a present-day reader, an important aspect of the appeal of vintage crime novels is that they are fascinating social documents”, this novel offers a rare insight into a world not often captured in such detail by Golden Age Crime writers. Part of its authenticity comes from the fact that its author was herself a practicing doctor in London, and apparently she spent time with the River Police, acquainting herself with their tasks and capacity. The outcome is a solid novel of the busy Port area, much of which was to be attacked in the coming conflict, with a suitably complex mystery involving murder and hidden consignments of a product which affects lives. It is an excellent read, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this deeply realistic book.
The novel begins with the delayed arrival of a ship, the San Angelo, news of which provokes different reactions among the various people who have been eagerly awaiting it. A social gathering in the home of a bored woman takes on a strange tone as she is obviously dissatisfied with her situation. Meanwhile the bustle and activity of the river is mainly stilled on a Sunday, and Harry Reed is enjoying the sunshine on a small beach revealed by the tide. As children wade out into the water, Harry’s attention is taken by a boy, evidently being pursued by his older sister. When the boy, Leslie, gets caught up in the wake of a tug, Harry takes his small boat out to try and rescue the child and his sister, who is making every effort to get to him. Eventually all three are rescued by the capable Sergeant Adams. The adventure makes Leslie into an avid fan of the River Police, and his determination to earn another trip on the launch means that he will keep vigil on the river for strange debris. Meanwhile June, his sister, meets Harry, and a relationship of sorts is established. In a nearby street a group of neighbours in condemned housing have cause to consult the local doctor, which allows the author space to recount the sort of work load he faced, including the original dialects of the people scraping survival along the river. A mysterious death provokes a minor police investigation, with major implications for those involved.
This is a powerful mystery, well written and plotted, with clues carefully revealed without fanfare. Though lacking a named investigator, this allows various discoveries to be made alongside the reader, as various strands of wrongdoing emerge. I found it a most enjoyable read, a truly sophisticated mystery, and another real treat from a Golden Age of Crime.