DEATH AT HALF-TERM (1939) by Josephine Bell

Medical doctor and sometime sleuth David Wintringham is attending a production of Twelfth Night at Denbury, the prep school where his brother-in-law is headmaster and where his adoring nephew Alistair is studying. When the actor playing Sir Toby Belch is coshed on the head at the end of the performance, Wintringham offers medical assistance. However he is soon investigating a murder and uncovers a case of kleptomania among the unruly cast of actors. Will he solve the case before Inspector Mitchell?

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Evan at Davy Crockett’s Almanack

“It would be lovely for Uncle David if it were a murder. I heard your mother say to him he must be getting quite out of practice because he hadn’t had a case for so long”

‘Josephine Bell’ was the pseudonym of Doris Bell Ball, née Collier (1897—1987), a practicing GP and mother of four who began publishing crime fiction in earnest to supplement her income after the tragic early death of her husband in a road accident. In a career spanning 50 years she published some 60 books, including several historicals, though she mostly focused on crime (she was a founder member of the Crime Writer’s Association). Death at Half-Term was one of her earlier mysteries (it appeared in the US many years later under the variant title, Curtain Call for a Corpse) and one of 8 featuring the ‘team’ of Wintringham and Inspector Steve Mitchell of Scotland Yard, though the two also often appeared in other books independently of each other. It passes the time amiably enough along very traditional lines, never digging very deep, and so makes for a decidedly cosy experience – with some predictably non PC pronouncements:

“Blimey!” thought Rogers as the young man came into the room. “What a crew! First a tough with the jitters, now a pansy.”

Bell_Curtain-CallThe busy plot is split between the various staff problems at Denbury Preparatory School (unrequited love, appendicitis, etc.); backstage bitchiness among the actors (overbearing lead actor with a short fuse, his wanton wife, pretty boy who all the gals fall in love with, insecure player nobody likes); and the parents participating in the annual cricket match against the staff. It is in this fairly chaotic atmosphere that David Wintringham, already a bit of a legend with the pupils thanks to Alistair’s enthusiastic reports on his uncle’s previous cases, tries to find out who smashed the head of the lead actor in the company hired to perform when the student production of Julius Caesar is abandoned due to illness.

“The lay public pill never learn that a medical emergency does not excite the doctor as it does them, and that a physician breathless and weak with exhaustion is no asset”

I’m afraid I found this one a bit dull and unrewarding – there is some pleasant banter (the wives of the Wintringham brothers are clearly far more sensible than their respective husbands) and the clues are perfectly fairly presented too. And yet this is a decidedly pedestrian and plodding whodunit, too adherent to the standard formula of the day (there is even a simple-minded villager among the suspects) to really stand out – and frankly it’s also much too leisurely in the telling (I wouldn’t have minded a second murder to spice the plot up a bit). Bell’s main innovation was making the amateur sleuth not especially remarkable, and in fact it’s Mitchell who solves the case at the end anyway. While this attempt at a touch of plausibility (the term ‘realism’ might be taking it too far) is welcome, it isn’t done with sufficient depth or ingenuity to compensate for the fun one usually gets from the standard variety of genius detective; and frankly the relationship between the professional and amateur isn’t that interesting either (they just grudgingly get along), so it just feels very flat and uninvolving. In the end, finding out just where the murderer secreted the club with which they bashed the head of the poor victim didn’t much interest me, though in fairness the culprit is quite well hidden (partly because the motive is a tad on the weak side).

The Wintringham & Mitchell Cases

[those with Mitchell solo are marked*, those only with Wintringham **]

  1. Murder in Hospital (1937)
  2. Death on the Borough Council (1937)**
  3. Fall Over Cliff (1938)
  4. The Port of London Murders (1938)*
  5. Death at Half-Term (1939)Bell_Half-Term_scarlett
  6. From Natural Causes (1939)**
  7. All Is Vanity (1940)**
  8. Trouble at Wrekin Farm (1942)**
  9. Death at the Medical Board (1944)**
  10. Death in Clairvoyance (1949)
  11. The Summer School Mystery (1950)
  12. Bones in the Barrow (1953)
  13. Fires at Fairlawn (1954)* *
  14. The China Roundabout (1956)
  15. Death in Retirement (1956)**
  16. The Seeing Eye (1958)
  17. Easy Prey (1959)*
  18. A Well-Known Face (1969)*
  19. A Flat Tyre in Fulham (aka Fiasco in Fulham, 1962)*

Incidentally, if Bell is your kind of author, then it is worth noting that Pan Macmillan, via its Bello imprint,  is currently reprinting many of her novels as ebooks. For more information, see the publisher’s website at: www.panmacmillan.com/author/josephinebell.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘time / day in the title’ category:

vintage-golden-card-marked-24

***** (1.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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50 Responses to DEATH AT HALF-TERM (1939) by Josephine Bell

  1. Sergio – Thank you as ever for your thorough and candid review. It is so important isn’t it that a novel have some character to it – some ‘meat.’ Otherwise it seems almost mechanical, or at least as you say dull. Sorry to hear you found that here. Perhaps I’ll wait on this one…

  2. Colin says:

    I actually never heard of this author, surprising given she wrote so prolifically. Sounds like this one was disappointing fare. Ah well, can’t win ‘em all I guess.

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    Never heard of this author. I’m not even inclined to try after reading your review !

  4. Sergio, you mentioned that you were reading this one recently and I looked it up – I love murders in academic institutions and murder backstage about equally, so it seemed worth a try. But I couldn’t see any cheap versions or reprints. But by the sound of things, I’m not missing much….

    • If you want my copy Moira I’ll be very, very glad to put it in the post to you (it’s the large print edition – I placed the cover next to the bibliography half way down the review)

  5. Oh dear – 1.5! And I started off thinking this might be an author I could love! Maybe I’ll see if the library has any before committing…….

    • Bell was popular for so long Karen that I am tempted to think that maybe I was just unlucky and picked a rather uninspiring entry as others seem much keener – having said that, they all agree that her detectives are often rather colourless by design …

  6. neer says:

    Sorry, Sergio that this did not work for you (But atleast you are not being hauled over the coals for liking a book :) I have read one of Bell’s – DEATH IN RETIREMENT – which struck me quite good in its depiction of post second ww/ end of empire England.

  7. Yvette says:

    I love when actors drop dead on stage. Ha. Not in reality of course. But I’ve read a few that worked very well. Ngaio Marsh wrote a few that worked spectacularly well. I’m not familiar with Josephine Bell’s work though I know I’ve heard the name somewhere over the years. I think I’ll skip this one, Sergio. But thanks for the review as always. I don’t know, whether you like or dislike a book, I always enjoy your take on things. Must be because you’re not only a book and film enthusiast, but a fine writer as well.

    • Thanks for being so kind Yvette, you’re a proper chum you are :) It may be that this is not really one of her better works but I’m going to wait a bit before trying another – I’m giving my copy to Moira of Clothes in Books so it will be interesting to see if she is inspired to cover it!

  8. John says:

    That Rogers must’ve been some naïf. Who wouldn’t expect to run into a pansy — or two or three or more — in a theater? Didn’t he know theaters (even school theater programs) are practically pansy magnets? Silly man. ;^)

    The first Bell book I tried was FALL OVER CLIFF (#3 in the list you generously added) but I lost interest very quickly and never returned to her. Your very excellent adjective “plodding” would also describe my reading experience. Even with the theater background (and a Shakespeare theater mystery at that) I’m not sure I could be tempted to try her again. The more I read about Bell the more I think she is in line with Gladys Mitchell. Both are described as “hit or miss” mystery writers, both indulge in some far reaching plot gimmicks and arbitrary solutions. At their worst they are dull or absurd to the point of distraction; at their best sparkling and imaginative. Such extremes of the spectrum are hard to fathom. Is it the writer’s mood at the time of creation that governs such inconsistency? Hmm…

    • I like the idea of a ‘pansy magnet’ – wonder if they do those for fridges? :) I am currently having ‘another go’ at Ngaio Marsh and then Mitchell, so am trying to see if my opinions have altered or if, as you say, I just got very unlucky with the books I chose. I think I’ll wait a while before giving Bell another shot though – thanks John for the great advice. Speaking of which, I loved The Missing Person and am posting a review next week – thanks again!

      • Okay, Sergio, you don’t like Marsh, Mitchell or Bell and you hate Sayers’ Gaudy Night. You ever think it’ may be you and not these poor ladies? ;)

        I know you like Tiger in the Smoke, but how do you feel about other Allinghams? You do like Christie, don’t you?

        • Now now Curtis, let’s keep things on an even keel here :) I absolutely love Margery Allingham and glowingly reviewed Case of the late Pig and Traitor’s Purse too. Mitchell I need to re-examine and will be reading Death at the Opera fairly soon in the hope that it will alter my negative disposition towards her clearly very variable work. And darn if I didn’t give a very positive review of Unnatural Death too. But Sayers could be a colossal snob and for me the elephantine Gaudy Night really bares that out.

          • Well, you know, I’m not a fan of Gaudy Night either and I have to admit that I have criticized some of the Marshes for the sick-making snobbery and general tweeness:

            http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=2013

            though, on the other hand, I quite like some of the Marshes, including Surfeit of Lampreys, one some people can’t stand.

            I’ve gotten to quite like Mitchell though I know she is an acquired taste as they say. I really think most of her best stuff is from her first decade or so. She got very inconsistent later on. Too many books, I suspect!

          • Am I right in thinking that DEATH AT THE OPERA is one of the better ones at least? I’d hate to screw this one up on the second attempt!!

          • Oh, agree with you about Case of the Late Pig, such a fun book.

          • I just love the way she can switch from light-hearted adventure to more serious skullduggery and murder with such easy and aplomp.

          • I like Death at the Opera, and it’s certainly well-regarded. St. Peter’s Finger is probably about her most straightforward book, but Opera is pretty close (don’t know what you’ll make of the ending though).

            And she did a great job evoking childhood in her somewhat autobiographical Rising of the Moon and Late, Late in the Evening (write what you know!).

            If you haven’t you should look at Jason Hall’s Gladys Mitchell website, it’s fantastically detailed.

          • That’s great, thanks Curt – and yes, i was checking that sire which was how I decided upon OPERA!

    • John, some of these writers just didn’t have a good idea for a book every year, but they didn’t let that stop them!

      You want embarrassing anti-gay passages, how about Ngaio Marsh’s beloved Roderick Alleyn in Death in Ecstasy, ugh!

      • I am currently in the middle of a Marsh from 1960 (FALSE SCENT), which has this rather amusing (sic) passage: “His air was gay and insouciant. He, too, was a bachelor and most understandably so”

        • Our Ngaio has some of the most notable stereotypical flaming queens in English mystery. See Death in Ecstasy and Final Curtain. Did she ever portray a gay man as a real human being, as opposed to a crude caricature, can’t recall one.

          It’s odd because of course she worked in theater and had lots of gay male friends, some quite non-swishy. But evidently she didn’t mind living down to cultural expectations.

          • It’s the sort of thing that makes it very hard to be straight and hold your head up Curtis, isn’t it? How can people be so small?

          • I suppose I should make it clear, by the way, I’m not criticizing gay flamobyancy. It’s just that so often historically in fiction that was the only way gay men were ever portrayed. And not just as swishy, but silly/nasty-swishy. Gays were either hysterical comic relief (Death in Ectasy) or vicious schemers (Final Curtain). It’s this cultural portrayal of gays that set back the cause of gay rights for so long, helping to make it so easy to stigmatize gays as some sort of alien “other.” Same thing was done of course with the “butch” lesbian.

            Anyway, let me step off the soapbox now!

          • Your point stands Curt – Dame Marsh should have known better and couldn’t even plead ignorance – that does make it worse.

  9. curtis evans says:

    I did an blog piece on her and her first mystery, which is Murder in Hospital, *not* Death on the Borough Council, which I quite liked and was very well-received. But she definitely wrote some dud books. I wasn’t crazy about Half-Term, foudn it kind of blah as you did, but Anthony Boucher quite liked it, which probably helps explain why it was reprinted more. Some of her best books have been very hard to find traditionally (haven’t they been reprinted in the UK?).

    • Thanks for pointing out my error in the chronology Curt, I have now fixed that. They are being republished as ebooks as I mentioned but I don’t think on paper (my copy of Half-Term was a hardback large-print edition in fact) – there is a Port of London reprint from 1987 that I may get though as it seems easy to find. I wonder what Boucher liked so much?

      • I suspect he was in an indulgent mood for a “classical” mystery. I liked The Port of London Murders, at least it had a more varied social milieu (Barzun hated it, but that shouldn’t worry you!).. A couple of her earlier ones that I liked are so rare that print copies cost hundreds of dollars, that was why I was wondering about the UK reprinting of eBooks.

        • Bello seem to be reprinting a lot of them in fact – I hadn’t realised some were so hard to come by! Symons only name-checks Bell in a list of many that he hasn’t examined in detail like Mignon G. Eberhart, Helen Reilly etc.

          • She really varied. Like Barzun said, she wrote some really flat books over the years. They aren’t awful, it’s just that are a lot of better things one could be reading. But she wrote some that were good too. Very uneven writer, all through her long career.

            Some of her early books, the ones that weren’t reprinted after the war in pb, can be really hard to find, because her books before the war were never published in the US. I was able to collect all her books, but it took some doing.

          • Well done chum – HALF-TERM took about 20 years to turn up in the US. But I suppose being such a busy writer (I think the total is about 60 if you include the historical novels) together with bringing up 4 kids alone and being a full-time GP would tend to mitigate against consistent quality!!

  10. curtis evans says:

    Here’s my review of Murder in Hospital. It really benefited from the old adage, write what you know!

    http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2013/02/doctored-death-murder-in-hospital-1937.html

  11. By the way, interesting to see it was her only old mystery reprinted in the 1950s by Pan in UK. I bet you that was after it was first published in the US as Curtain Call for a Corpse and praised by Boucher. Odd how these things go. Murder in Hospital is much more interesting and original, but was never even published in the States or reprinted in pb anywhere after WW2.

    I agree Half-Term is mediocre, but I imagine some traditionalist English mystery fans would enjoy it nevertheless. Another innovation by Bell, by the way, is incorporating David’s and Jill’s children into the books. She definitely played her role in UK in “humanizing” the fiction amateur detective.

  12. I’ve only read a couple Bell mysteries, but I was underwhelmed. Looks like you were, too. Some mysteries are dated fast. I’m impressed by Agatha Christie’s ability to make many of her mysteries timeless.

  13. TracyK says:

    I have wondered about Josephine Bell but not getting much encouragement to try her books here. On the other hand, if I find a cheap copy at the book sale, I will dive in and see what I think.

    Very interesting comments here. I did not know there are others who don’t care for Gaudy Night, I thought I was the only one. I probably liked it fine the first time, but not good on re-reads.

  14. A writing career spanning fifty years and some sixty books and I haven’t read even one? Well, Sergio, at least I have heard of Josephine Bell. That’s an impressive list of Wintringham and Mitchell books that I must try someday.

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