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.”
The 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 **]
- Murder in Hospital (1937)
- Death on the Borough Council (1937)**
- Fall Over Cliff (1938)
- The Port of London Murders (1938)*
- Death at Half-Term (1939)
- From Natural Causes (1939)**
- All Is Vanity (1940)**
- Trouble at Wrekin Farm (1942)**
- Death at the Medical Board (1944)**
- Death in Clairvoyance (1949)
- The Summer School Mystery (1950)
- Bones in the Barrow (1953)
- Fires at Fairlawn (1954)* *
- The China Roundabout (1956)
- Death in Retirement (1956)**
- The Seeing Eye (1958)
- Easy Prey (1959)*
- A Well-Known Face (1969)*
- 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: