From Natural Causes (Josephine Bell)

  • By Josephine Bell
  • First published: UK: Longmans, Green, 1939. No US publication.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

‘Mop’ Gainsborough is sweet and fluffy; she is petite, and has big grey eyes and fair curls; she is pathetic, wistful, and charming, “a poor little thing”. She may also be a murderess.

She falls in love with a young anatomist while her husband, an army officer, is in India. Captain Gainsborough returns, and is soon taken ill and dies “from natural causes”: a perforated gastric ulcer.

Five years later, Mop has married her anatomist, but is now having an affair with her son’s chemistry professor – and her new husband is already complaining of gastric pains. Another death soon takes place, once more “from natural causes”, and a perforated gastric ulcer.

Only this time, Bell’s doctor detective, David Wintringham, is on the scene – and his diagnosis is murder.

There was a time early in her career when Josephine Bell (pseudonym of Doris Bell Collier, 1897–1987) was regarded as a great white hope of the detective story. Her first novel, Murder in Hospital (1937), was recognised at once as a masterpiece (a view I don’t share). Maurice Richardson (The Observer) wrote: “If Miss Josephine Bell can keep it up, those three queens of crime – Agatha, Dorothy, and Ellery – will have to make their thrones closer and make room for a fourth.”

Her next novels increased her reputation in the UK. (None of her novels were published in the US until the mid-Fifties.) Reviewing the (rather good) school / theatre mystery, Death at Half-Term (1938), Richardson’s Observer colleague William Blunt declared: “Miss Bell … has established herself as the third of the Three Great Norns (the other two being Miss Sayers and Mrs. Christie) who spend their time in weaving webs of crime for our delighted disentangling.”

Causes, book six, is something of a sequel to Murder in Hospital; it takes place in St. Edmund’s, the hospital / training college of the first book. It was likewise acclaimed. Richardson thought Bell was “right at the top of her form”; E. R. Punshon (Manchester Guardian) believed it was “the best thing Miss Bell has yet done”; Harold M. Dowling (Western Mail) judged it the best of recent books “in respect to style and general competence”; and W. E. J. M. (Western Morning News) called it “an exceptional novel”.

Most critics tumbled easily to the culprit, but were impressed by the “devilish” method and the naturalistic characterisation.

The characterization is excellent, as are Bell’s depictions of adultery, army life, and a busy hospital college. But I was underwhelmed by both “How” and “Who”.

The “How”, you see, is not original. John Rhode used it first in The Claverton Mystery (1933), six years earlier, and I spotted Bell’s use of it very early. You will, too, if you’ve read Rhode’s book.

The mystery itself is minimalist. Mop is very obviously the main suspect – in the reader’s eyes, at least, although it takes some time for Dr. Wintringham to consider her. There are only two other possibilities: her anatomist lover / husband (who wanted to marry Mop) and her teenage son (a chemistry enthusiast with a grudge against his father).

But Bell keeps vital information back from the reader. ROT13. V qrpvqrq gung gur fba jnf gur zheqrere, orpnhfr Zbc ynpxrq purzvpny xabjyrqtr. Bayl ng gur raq bs gur obbx, bapr fur unf orra rkcbfrq, qb jr yrnea gung fur jnf genvarq nf n qvfcrafre, fb xarj nobhg purzvpnyf. END


Blurb

1939 Longmans

Yes – it’s yet another MURDER IN HOSPITAL – no need to say any more!

Josephine Bell at her best – high praise but not too high, we think, for the merits of this book. Dr. Wintringham and Inspector Mitchell are here on familiar ground, for the scene is once more St. Edmund’s Hospital, the setting of the author’s first great success, Murder in Hospital. And the mystery they are set to unravel surrounds an apparently natural death, exactly similar to one that occurred five years previously. In this story, as in all Josephine Bell’s books, an exciting backed by a detailed background mystery cleverly detected, is in colours true to life.

“Miss Bell has established herself as the third of the Three Great Norns (the others being Miss Sayers and Mrs Christie) who spend their time in weaving webs of crime for our disentangling.” – Observer.

Norns – Divine giantesses


Reviews

Western Mail (Harold M. Dowling, 19th October 1939): Ingenious

Of crime stories – always delightful recreation – the best that has come way recently in respect to style and general competence is that by Miss Josephine Bell. For the setting of this ingenious tale Miss Bell returns to the scene of an earlier triumph, St. Edmunds Hospital, the atmosphere of which she conveys with great vividness and authenticity. The story is based upon two apparently natural deaths which in the outcome prove to have been engineered by an especially heartless murderer and in a peculiarly fiendish way. There are the usual array of suspects, but, personally, I had little doubt after the first death as to who was the perpetrator. Miss Bell has characterised that person too powerfully to leave much doubt in the reader’s mind after a few chapters that she (the murderer) is a thoroughly bad egg. The surprise the author keeps for us is not the identity of the criminal but the method of the crime. This was really an original stroke. Anyway, those readers who believe that a good thriller should also be a good novel will get their money’s worth in From Natural Causes.

The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 22nd October 1939): Returning, for part of her scene, to the hospital where she was first crowned queen of crime, Miss Bell is right at the top of her form. The plot of From Natural Causes, extending over several years and entailing some switches of interest, is neatly and tightly constructed. Characterisation is brilliantly natural and, when necessary, brilliantly sinister. There is also a new delayed action method of murder which any schoolboy should know, but which will keep you guessing and bewildered till the last page. Nothing is held back from the reader, no serious attempt is made to conceal the murderer’s identity; yet the story is so cunningly told that it bristles with surprise. To avoid revelations, I will only summarise vaguely by saying that the first crime is not conclusively proved to be murder until the second has given Wintringham the necessary data for discovering the method. There is abundance of fascinating hospital and medical detail, and to crown everything Miss Bell has succeeded in creating one of the most creditably horrible murderer types for years.

Berks & Oxon Advertiser (J. H. C. Laker, 27th October 1939): Death by poisoning is the execution selected by the murderers in both John Dickson Carr’s The Black Spectacles and Josephine Bell’s From Natural Causes

From Natural Causes has the same setting as Miss Bell’s Murder in Hospital, and the case is again undertaken by Dr. Wintringham and Inspector Mitchell. Two apparently natural deaths occur, one five years after the other, and the reader will not be deceived by the too obviously innocent character of one of the possible suspects, but the great interest of the work lies in the method by which the deaths were brought about.

Liverpool Daily Post (1st November 1939): Miss Josephine Bell writes detective stories which have medical interest. From Natural Causes is another of these tales and a very good one it is, extremely ingenious in idea and skilful in development.

Western Morning News (W. E. J. M., 2nd November 1939): From the pen of Josephine Bell comes a new crime story, From Natural Causes, which is an exceptional novel.

There is no multiplicity of characters, there is no overacting nor unnatural dialogue, and, better still, no melodrama. It is all very quiet, yet one is thrilled by the sequence of events. The solution is brilliant and, I assume, chemically possible. Here is a rattling good crime novel, and Miss Bell shows that such a novel can be written and still be literature as opposed to mere noise.

The Daily Telegraph (3rd November 1939): After reading Miss Bell’s book we mistrust our nearest and dearest. For the deaths in From Natural Causes happen so reasonably. In both cases – with five years between first and second – there are recent symptoms of indigestion.

In both cases the post-mortem proves straightforward and uneventful. Just one remark made in the post-mortem room roused Dr. Wintringham’s curiosity.

Quietly, effectively, mercilessly, Miss Bell concludes this ultra-devilish case. Our emotions are tossed hither and thither, and in the end we realise that we have been fooled just as completely as – well, as the guilty person fooled everybody else! An exciting and disturbing book.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 4th November 1939): In From Natural Causes Miss Josephine Bell makes a welcome return to the type of a story with which she achieved her most notable success, Murder in a Hospital.  She has since made several experiments, including the straight thriller, but none has had the quality of her hospital story.  This is another hospital story, and if it is not as good as the first it is too much to hope to bring off the same kind of success twice.  The problem concerns a lady of doubtful morals whose first husband died conveniently and without question and whose elderly lover is blackmailed by a hospital attendant who then dies in exactly the same way.  Dr. Wintringham, Miss Bell’s amateur detective, gets interested in the case and quickly traces events back.  The characters are real and the hospital atmosphere authentic – too authentic for some it may be; for there may well be readers of detective novels who do not mind a knife dripping blood but are nauseated by an excess of medical details.

The Montrose Review (10th November 1939): Hospital life provides the background for From Natural Causes by Josephine Bell. A husband comes back from India to die in hospital, his death proving particularly convenient for his wife’s doctor-lover. Years later an hospital attendant dies on the operating table, and the post mortem puzzles the experts. Dr Wintringham happens on the scene, and he and Inspector Mitchell find trails that lead to several people, including an eminent surgeon and the other doctor’s stepson. The characters in this book – notably the murderer – are outstanding, and the method of murder is very cleverly managed. A first-class crime novel by one of our most successful crime novelists.

The Manchester Guardian (E. R. Punshon, 1st December 1939): Mop, in From Natural Causes, by Miss Josephine Bell, was one of those pretty, clinging, sweet little women. But while her soldier husband was away in India she was carrying on an intrigue with another man, which perhaps was not quite so sweet. Fortunately the soldier husband died promptly and conveniently on his return home and Mop married her lover and they lived happily – well, not ever after, because presently there was another death and Dr. Wintringham grew interested, and Dr. Wintringham is an ill man to have about when there’s murder in the offing. Miss Bell makes good use of her medical knowledge, but gives us this time fewer of those little vignettes of doctor and patient that distinguished some of her earlier tales. In compensation she makes this story more of a strong and closely woven pattern than before. In the opinion of at least one reader it is the best thing Miss Bell has yet done, even though the police do not really carry on long discussions with those whom they intend to arrest and even though Miss Bell is a little inclined to keep various titbits of information up her detective’s sleeve.

Illustrated London News (K. J [Katherine John]., 16th December 1939): Miss J. Bell has returned to old ground – St. Edmund’s Hospital – and with the very best result. Her crimes are lifelike, and her medical debates are absorbing. For psychological reasons you are almost bound to spot the criminal, but it doesn’t matter.

5 thoughts on “From Natural Causes (Josephine Bell)

  1. Sounds like a fun setup, so it’s a shame this didn’t work out for you. I remember reading a couple of Bell’s books back in the early days of Kindle ownership and finding her occasionally superb (Death in Retirement has a wonderful clue involving a photograph) but generally a bit too dull to persevere with. Which is a shame, as she was astoundingly prolific!

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    1. I’ve read nesrly 20 of Bell’s novels, so a bit under half. Nothing great; probably the best are Death at Half- Term and Death on the Medical Board, both early Dr. Wintringhams, and the much later Catalyst, which is more like a Highsmith or Rendell. She lost interest in detection; most of the post-WWII ones are suspense or crime novels. Some are mediocre, not helped by her reactionary politics. In one, the murderer is a butch lesbian. But there might be some gems; I’ve been looking at the newspaper reviews, and Francis Iles and Julian Symons praised several.

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      1. I shall not dive headlong into anything, but I’ll keep an eye out for Death at Half-Term and Death on the Medical Board. Might it be appropriate that she had been anticipated John Rhode here, given his own large output and variable quality? 😄

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  2. Have you read “The Port of London Murders”? That seems to me to be a pretty good book, despite not being exactly a conventional detective story.

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