Death of a Con Man (Josephine Bell)

  • By Josephine Bell
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1968; US: Lippincott, 1968.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

On a cold October night, Jim Sparks has a head-on collision with a coach. He is rushed to hospital in a critical condition; doctors try to save his life, but he is given a transfusion of the wrong type of blood, and dies. Good riddance, say the police; Sparks (né Stowden, alias Totteridge, Holmes, and Pearce) was a criminal. But the young Indian doctor who administered the blood is blamed; the coroner’s findings could ruin his career.

His friend, Colin Frost, the hospital registrar (and, one presumes, son of Dr. Frost in 1966’s Death on the Reserve), comes to his defence. He discovers that Sparks’s death was foul play: someone altered the blood group recorded in his diary. The mystery thickens: someone had stabbed Sparks in his car; his woman passenger has vanished.

Thirtieth of Bell’s 43 crime stories, Con Man has a mixed reputation. It was positively received in Britain, where the Realist tradition is strong: H. R. F. Keating encouraged readers to “tuck in” to a “detailed account of curious murder and cold blackmail around the hospital world”; the Daily Telegraph gave it full marks; and it kept the Sunday Times “fascinated from the first page to the last”. In America, it was more coolly received; critics there found it pedestrian or dull; Kirkus even prescribed it as a tranquilizer.

One reason why it left American critics lukewarm is its absence of a puzzle plot (America’s great gift to the genre). This is a mystery without any suspects, and little detection or deduction. The investigation is procedural: Colin questions the victim’s uncle, his father-in-law, his ex-wife, and a couple of swindled women, who tell him about the dead man’s past, and give him leads to other people he could question, who narrate further edifying episodes from this criminal biography. (One might call it “Life of a Con Man”.) Meanwhile, the police do some routine sleuthing, visiting nightclubs and trailing Sparks’s criminal associates. (This reminded me of late Christopher Bush.) But, as Barzun and Taylor remarked, “it is difficult to care who did what or why”.

The book ends more satisfactorily than I had hoped. The murderer is almost a Chestertonian “invisible man”, a worker. I suspected him at the start (he is the only logical culprit, and the only person with opportunity), but he then drops out of the book for 130 pages. This gives the impression of a mildly clever short story wrapped around filler.

Colin’s friendship with Dr. Patel, the Indian doctor, makes a welcome change from Bell’s first novel, Murder in Hospital (1937), where, as Curt Evans observes, the white doctor detective, series sleuth David Wintringham, treats black doctors “friendly but sufficiently distant[ly]”; it won’t “do to let the fellow get to uppish”. By the late 1960s, attitudes had changed: Bell’s sympathetic characters – like Frost and Brigadier Stowden – pride themselves on being free from racial prejudice. Modern readers might still find their attitude slightly patronising; Indians, Colin explains, know routine, and they know textbooks backwards, but they haven’t got the kind of mind that grasp technical mechanics or mechanisms, or how to apply principles. Try telling that to my G.P.!


1968 J. B. Lippincott (US)

A car crashes near a provincial English town. The badly injured driver is taken to a hospital where he dies, partly owing to a mistake made by a young resident doctor.


The corpse, it turns out, was a con man, long wanted (and often caught) by the police, who are quite content to have him dead. But the error has placed the hapless young doctor’s career in jeopardy, and two of his friends, a young surgeon and a journalist, set out to prove that his apparent mistake was actually the result of someone else’s deliberate murder plot.

Their suspicions become virtual certainties as the you ng men delve into the con man’s murky past and discover many people who might have wished him dead. But trapping the murderer proves to be both a difficult and dangerous mission for the two nonprofessional investigators.

From the first page, the reader is caught up in the suspense that is finally resolved in a splendid twist at the very end of the story.

Contemporary reviews

The Times (H.R.F. Keating, 30th March 1968): You get plenty on your plate in this detailed account of curious murder and cold blackmail around the hospital world. Tuck in.

Aberdeen Press and Journal (Peter Craighead, 27th April 1968): In Death of a Con Man Miss Bell introduces something new the killing technique. Here is murder through altering a car accident victim’s blood group. A hospital doctor who decides to establish how and why, finds himself in a world of shady night clubs and protection rackets.

Daily Telegraph: Full marks.

Sunday Times: Kept us fascinated from the first page to the last.

Kirkus (1st July 1968): Con man James Sparks takes three for the count: knife wounds, car accident and finally a fatal hospital mistake. But intern Colin Frost decides that the latter was the result of a deliberate murder attempt. In an attempt to save the career of a friend, he investigates and it’s an intricately charted affair. Diagnosis: plot suffers from symptomanic stress; the blood count is low and the whole thing can be taken as a tranquilizer. For Miss Bell’s patient audience.

Star-Phoenix (Canada) (A. D. B., 31st July 1968): A first-rate detective story by an author whose characters are, as usual, from the medical profession. This tale involves an Indian intern, mistaken blood groups, a perhaps over-zealous young registrar, and the black sheep of an old English military family. Unlike so many modern detective tales, this one achieves distinction without vice and violence.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri) (Beatrice K. Schwartz, 4th August 1968): The British police are quite content to have Jim Sparks out of the way, but his death threatens the career of the young doctor who gave him emergency treatment at the hospital where Sparks is taken after being seriously injured in a car crash. How could the doctor have made the mistake he did, and become the instrument of a murderer? Two of his friends, a young surgeon and a journalist, encounter violent resistance when they investigate. Perfect example of Mrs. Bell’s best, which couples striking suspense with profoundly convincing details. Her scene is Wiltshire, with excursions over much of Britain as the story develops.

The Fresno Bee (H. M., 11th August 1968): An automobile crashes near a small English provincial town. The driver, badly hurt, is taken to a nearby hospital where a young doctor, a Hindu imported from India, orders a blood transfusion taking the type from what is written in a notebook the man had on him. It was the wrong type and the man dies.

His friend, young Dr. Colin Frost, begins digging into the case, trying to save the Indian doctor from dismissal The first thing he finds is that the victim is a one-time war hero who was cashiered from service for theft and had been a crook ever since. Little by little, he unravels the past of the dead man and from out of that past at last finds out the one who altered the blood group on the notebook so the victim would surely die.

A well-written whodunit keeps up the suspense cleverly right to the end. And Dr. Frost makes a very engaging detective.

Portland Evening Express (Maine) (12th August 1968): This English woman doctor turned writer has a list of over a score mystery yarns, and about a dozen other books only one of which is non-fiction.

In this one she draws upon her knowledge of blood types to create a story of murder by misinformation which causes an innocent doctor to use the wrong type in a transfusion.

Unfortunately the lady doesn’t show a knack, at least in this story, of building suspense.

Death of a Con Man is pedestrian. It reads like an amplification and extension of a police report or a medical review of a case.

Chicago Tribune (A. L. Rosenzweig, 18th August 1968): Josephine Bell, one of the great ladies of the English thriller, provides some relief from the flood of spy stories that have driven everything before them. Death of a Con Man sends a young doctor after a murderer in an effort to redeem the reputation of a given a patient a lethal transfusion of incompatible blood. All the familiar Anglo-Saxon attitudes are here, as people give each other whisky and sodas, protect family skeletons and discuss the case politely before comfortable fires. And once again the good, grey Inspector fails to detect the culprit ahead of our amateur hero. 

The Los Angeles Times (Dorothy B. Hughes, 22nd September 1968): Josephine Bell contributes another of her medical crime stories in Death of a Con Man, with a car crash and a transfusion of the wrong type blood leading to a meticulous hunt for a man of many names. Sound as a Bell always is…

The News and Observer (North Carolina) (Jim Chaney, 26th January 1969): When the patient, a car crash victim, dies, the autopsy discloses a knife wound. But the coroner is more interested in the fact that the young doctor who administered a transfusion must have used the wrong type blood. The young doctor, native of India studying in England, faces professional censure. A young colleague, a surgeon, becomes concerned and in Josephine Bell’s Death of a Con Man turns detective. Mrs. Bell, a physician who started to write after her doctor-husband died in 1936, is in her usual good form. The young surgeon manages to break the case but only after the reader has found every chapter the professional mixture of suspense and insight which has become Dr Bell’s always satisfying prescription for the mystery mania.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1976): Dr. Colin Frost is innocently involved in the death (in hospital after an accident) of a man wanted by the police. Another doctor and a journalist help Inspector Rawlinson. Better (i.e., more active) Bell than usual lately.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Although Dr. Bell provides good scenes, including a car crash and a killing expedited by a fraudulently changed listing of a blood type, this is essentially a dull book. None of the author’s former medical detectives appears, and although the con man himself is credibly presented, it is difficult to care who did what or why.

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