A Hole in the Ground (Josephine Bell)

By Josephine Bell

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1971

3 stars

Here’s a review I wrote when I was 19 or 20.  Obviously I must have been a dyspeptic, dessicated academic in a past life.

This late Bell suffers from a problem shared with Gladys Mitchell and Margery Allingham: many of the scenes are excellent, demonstrating fertility and ingenuity, but the same fertility and ingenuity are over-applied to the serious business of plotting, resulting in such tangled webs that their foundation lives up to the book’s title.

Thus, although the surprisingly Rendellesque presentation of the two murderous sisters (one of whom the doctor hero is completely taken aback to discover is a lesbian) and the scenes in the Devil’s Well are excellent, the details of the crimes committed twenty years before the main action are impossible to follow, calling for mute acceptance rather than for scrutiny.

A pity, for this “crime novel” (as critics would call it) could have been an excellent book with a little more work.


Martin Filton was a Cambridge medical student at his first encounter with the mysterious affair at Tregellick.  He was afraid of being laughed at by the police if he went to them with his story: of the shots he had heard, the gory bundle he had retrieved when it fell from the jeep, and how, a little later, he found a piece of the same bloodstained sacking caught on the wire fence round the “hole in the ground”, much less any rumour of murder.  The whole thing lay fallow at the back of Martin’s mind until, twenty years later, a well-qualified surgeon, he returned to Cornwall and met Drina, whose home was the farm to which the jeep had been taken and whose “aunt”, sister of her foster-mother, had been its driver.  The mystery of Drina’s parentage and the unhappiness this caused her spurred Martin into investigations both of this and the curious events of that autumn day long ago.

Contemporary reviews

The Times (H.R.F. Keating, 13th December 1971):

Cornwall and hatred “lasting as true love”.  Plenty of restrained local colour, a quiet romance, a solid story.