The Port of London Murders

Written by Josephine Bell

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

The Port of London Murders
British Library Classics
RRP: £8.99
Released: October 10, 2020

If parts of The Port of London Murders seem confused or confusing then that is probably a reflection of life as it was lived (or more likely endured) in Rotherhithe and Wapping in the late 1930s (the book first appeared in 1938 and was re-issued in 1945). 

Josephine Bell uses two or three detailed, but still infuriatingly incomplete, scenes to establish that this is a story of smuggling, drug addicts in high society, petty larceny and social inadequacy. Few characters have jobs, the rest are sick or lead-swinging, and essentially dependent on ‘the parish’ (the Poor Law Administration is still in effect). Their attempts to obtain benefits honestly or otherwise become part of the plot: a missing back wall to a coal hole is essential to both the theft of coal and the witnessing of a murder.

Josephine Bell was a General Practioner herself, based in Greenwich (her house still stands: within a short time she had sold it to George Orwell’s brother-in-law), and another part of the plot revolves around the two doctors who treat patients in miserable Rotherhithe (that is, next door to Greenwich): one is in private practice, but of course cannot expect poor patients to pay much, while the other treats patients ‘on the panel’ (sent by the Relieving Officer). Houses, though they are awaiting demolition, are too valuable to be home to just one family – rooms are rented out. It is in one of them that a woman dies from drinking lysol (a poisonous disinfectant, and a brand name though Bell never capitalises it) but Sergeant Chandler realises that Mary Holland had been an injecting heroin addict yet her needle is missing. This is not the suicide it was supposed to appear. Then Sergeant Chandler vanishes.

The connection between Rotherhithe and Mayfair is June Harvey, who works in a high class lingerie shop there while her kid brother spends as long as possible on the foreshore. It is this foreshore that will receive broken cases washed from storm-wracked shipping, and via a circuitous method of clothes smuggled in such cases June will become involved. For these clothes are silk night-dresses which a young man might wish to give a young woman he was hoping to impress, but which lingerie said young woman might not wish to discuss with the police, out of modesty or insouciance or simple bloody-mindedness.

The Port of London Murders can be called a thriller: Josephine Bell reveals a lot as she goes along. We know that June Harvey’s other suitor is running the drug smuggling ring, even if we don’t know how he brings the heroin in, and we know that he is the height of cruelty. He has already cast off his former shop worker when her addiction made her incapable of working for him, and he will do worse as the story develops. The book, though, is also a police procedural – when Sergeant Chandler disappears Inspector Mitchell has to investigate both the missing police office and the murder of Mary Holland- and it is a detective story. Lysol, like many poisons, is revolting to taste: how could someone be persuaded to drink it voluntarily as Mary clearly had done? The solution – at least as it seems to someone whose medical knowledge ended before being allowed to go on a company first-aid course – seems cleverly realised and revolves again around disinfectant brands, while the moment of Sergeant Chandler’s disappearance is horrific when it is explained.

It is difficult to think that Josephine Bell liked her characters very much – their vulgarity and uncouthness are emphasised, and their inability to speak the King’s English appears in every apostrophe of every dropped initial ‘H’ ‘ and finial-’G’ gerund, but June Harvey gets her lorry driver beau in the end, as earlier the labours of her young brother in crossing the river to the River Police station are emphasised, so they can’t be all bad.

Rotherhithe docks and the many ‘Stairs’ that lead down to the river have been lost since re-development began in the 1980s, making it difficult to imagine some of the street scenes today, though the ‘Marine Policing Unit’ is still there on the Wapping side. Struggles with the contemporary equivalent of the Relieving Office will seem familiar, but the personal and financial struggle of the two doctors revealed as the plot develops are much more painful to learn. One hopes they have no modern equivalent.

Having last read The Port of London Murders over ten years ago, I am glad that this British Library Crime Classics edition has given me the opportunity to read and appreciate it once more.

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