Death at the Medical Board (Josephine Bell)

By Josephine Bell

First published: UK, Longmans, Green & Co., 1944

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Me at 19

A very uneven writer has produced a very clever book. Ursula Frinton, equipped with heart certificates (one positive, one negative), dies of heart failure during her medical examinations – subsequently revealed to be due to  nicotine in her lipstick, “an extreme example of daring, flamboyant disregard of risks, and elaborate ingenuity”.  Dr. Williams, one of the doctors on the Board, calls in the agreeable but colourless Dr. Wintringham, who has received Government permission to investigate, since the dead girl had scrawled the letters “P.H.” onto her chest, “P.H.” being the initials of a sabotage group, and one of the certificates was provided by a doctor associated with P.H. When Ursula’s husband dies in a car crash caused by nicotine poisoning, Dr. Wintringham is forced to reject the hypothesis of espionage, and to consider the possibility that Ursula’s uncle, Hubert Frinton, and his son, Reginald committed the crime in order to inherit the estate, with the assistance of Ursula’s old Nanny, a woman possessed of “malignancy of a fearful and unexpected sort”. In order to prove his hypothesis, Dr. Wintringham (assisted by his wife) actively detects, reasoning from physical clues, including a good use of left-handedness, and prying into the past (an excess of interviews without substance), while the police make routine enquiries about lipstick purchase and substitution. Along the way, he is attacked several times: he is given nicotine-impregnated cigarettes, he is shot at by Reginald Frinton, he is lured into a death-trap involving an open well, and he is held at gunpoint by a murderous physician. These do not help the reader to feel much confidence in Wintringham; to misquote Wilde, “to be nearly murdered once may be regarded as a misfortune; to be nearly murdered four times looks like carelessness”. The final solution, relying on a successful application of Anthony Berkeley’s favourite gambit, is particularly surprising, but quite convoluted; and it is noteworthy that the crime as originally envisaged was superfluous.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 23rd December 1944):

Wits have been very hard at work to match crimes of exasperating simplicity with explanations of vast complexity.  Yet not many stories of this type could compare with Death at the Medical Board.  A girl conscript falls dead in a cubicle from a heart-attack after it has been decided that there is nothing wrong with her heart.  When detectives inquire into the reasons anyone might have to desire her death the upheaval is such as to threaten, or so it seems for a time, the entire social system.


A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

The description on the paperback cover “an original publication—not a reprint” is misleading.  Dr. Bell is not writing directly for mass consumption.  The tale is a wartime one and much better done than most of her recent stuff.  Dr. Wintringham does a creditable job of finding out who gave the nicotine and how.