The Port of London Murders (Josephine Bell)

  • By Josephine Bell
  • First published: UK: Longmans, 1938; US: Macmillan, 1958
  • Availability: British Library Crime Classics (forthcoming this week), introduction by Martin Edwards

The Port of London Murders‘ great merit lies in its depiction of Thirties London’s seedy but vital dockland, with its tugboat captains, drunken old women, quarrelling neighbours, and inquisitive small boys. As a detective story, it’s rather ordinary. As in Crofts‘s Box Office Murders, the plot revolves around an elaborate criminal scheme, here smuggling drugs rather than the counterfeit coins. The murders of a heroin addict (a cupful of disinfectant) and a policeman (missing, presumed…?) are only incidental; there’s no mystery about the culprit, who commits suicide with 50 pages to go. The chief villain is a handsome psychopath, an original character for the time, and arguably an influence on Margery Allingham‘s Jack Havoc (The Tiger in the Smoke).


1938 Longmans

Wapping. Tugs and barges on the river. A west-end shop that deals apparently in nothing but lingerie. Women who sell their souls for something in a little screw of paper. A doctor in the slums who has mysterious visitors…

In a mean street of dockland a woman is dead, with every sign of suicide…

A derelict barge casts part of a cargo ashore, boxes which have double ends: some of these box-ends are empty, others conceal pink chiffon nightdresses…

The river police are concerned with the smuggling, Detective-Sergeant Chandler with an apparent suicide which he believes to be murder. River and shore police confer. Sergeant Chandler visits his suspect once more. He is never seen again…

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 13th November 1938): Nothing is more infuriating for authors than to ask them to repeat their first books, but I do most seriously recommend to Miss Josephine Bell with another course of institutional treatment for her subject matter and settings.  Her literary talents, which are far greater than the average detective story writers, have led her to write The Port of London Murders in the favourite form of the lady novelist—a scene here, a scene there, and a scene all over the place.  She writes them very nicely indeed, especially the scenes of dockside life, children playing about in boats, slum streets; but she does not provide the most satisfactory framework for her rather artificial drug-smuggling plot, emanating from a West End dress shop and organised by a Mayfair gangster.  The murders themselves are excellent, for Miss Bell is one of the few killers with a genuine feeling for the sinister, a regular queen of death.  So are the details, which are lit up, as usual, by her capacity for eager observation.  But, as I have said, it is a pity, from the point of view of the detective story reader at any rate, that so much interest and characterisation should be presented in so diffuse a form.  Still, I would far rather be slightly disappointed by Miss Bell than highly satisfied by many of her colleagues, and as a token of admiration I am prepared to offer her, free, what I believe is an entirely new method of murder.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 19th November 1938): The other two novels, although generous in the way of providing mysterious poisons, present no serious problems and are concerned chiefly with atmosphere and character.  Miss Josephine Bell, who once wrote a model detective novel called Murder in Hospital, has tried her hand at a thriller.  The background of the story, the docks and the River Thames, is admirable.  The plot concerns drug smuggling, which is directed from a Mayfair hat shop and leads to murders in Wapping.  The good and bad characters are made plain from the start and the police take a back place.  The episodic character of the narrative rather breaks its rhythm and the large number of characters who make spasmodic appearances is muddling.  But, as thrillers go, the tale is really quite good and well written; it only disappoints in comparison with Miss Bell’s earlier work.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 30th December 1938): The remaining books are more or less avowed thrillers.  The merit of The Port of London Murders lies more in its pleasant description of Thames-side scenes than in its adventure or detection.  There are smuggling and murder here, but the book is not Miss Bell at her best.

Peter Belloc in Daily Sketch: The name of this author alone should be sufficient to tell the crime connoisseur that this book is hot stuff. But like all Josephine Bell’s work, it is more than an ordinary first-class thriller, it is a book which is well worth reading for its own sake.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Disliked for several reasons by J.B. and for only one less by W.H.T.  It is, among other bad things, exceedingly long, and J. Bell lacks D. Sayers’ staying power.

3 thoughts on “The Port of London Murders (Josephine Bell)

  1. Hmm. Rather a wasted opportunity that such great scene-setting and writing is not put to use more effectively. Thanks for another very interesting review.


  2. I’m a bit puzzled by Barzun’s opinion – I’ve read it several times and it never struck me as being excessively long at all – about 210 pages in the dark green Penguin edition, about the same length as The Mad Hatter Mystery, and I’ve never heard anyone say that was too long! In fact, I think TPOLM is quite successful, as long as you don’t expect a standard GAD whodunit.


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