Josephine Bell Essay - Critical Essays

Doris Collier Ball


Josephine Bell was not a literary innovator, nor was she an abject conformist. She did not introduce new devices or make significant changes in existing conventions of the genre. Instead, she was scrupulous in observing the traditions of the classic detective story—except for the treatment of her detective hero: She rejected the idea of the eccentric master sleuth in favor of more realistic characterization. In fact, she surpassed many of the Golden Age writers in realistic presentation of both principal and secondary characters. Furthermore, unlike many of her contemporaries, who did not change with the times, after World War II Bell introduced greater range and depth of psychological development in her characters and even portrayed individuals with personality disorders. She strove continually to create lifelike characters and often drew on her wide experience of human nature in representing humankind’s foibles, follies, and vices.

Bell’s career as a professional crime writer spanned fifty years. For the first twenty years, she wrote a series of books featuring a detective team composed of a gifted amateur, Dr. David Wintringham, and a Scotland Yard professional, Inspector Steven Mitchell. They worked together on eight cases—approximately half of the tales—and Wintringham appeared alone in seven other mysteries. Mitchell functioned on his own in only one story; Bell subsequently paired him with a more flamboyant amateur partner, Claude Warrington-Reeve, in three other whodunits. Bell followed the Golden Age tradition in favoring the gifted amateur over the more pedestrian police officer but departed from it by failing to endow her medical amateur with an eccentric personality. Wintringham’s character is consistently realistic and undramatic. Although Mitchell is more than simply a Watson-type foil, he is always secondary to the more compelling figures of Wintringham and Warrington-Reeve.

Dr. David Wintringham

Although Dr. David Wintringham is the main character, no information concerning his physical appearance or social background is given. His personality is revealed through his thoughts, conversation, and behavior. Some critics have suggested that Bell’s reputation suffered because she failed to create a great detective, that Wintringham’s personality was not vivid enough to draw a large following. There may be some truth in this charge. Post-World War II writers who created ordinary, unsensational sleuths developed the personalities and personal lives of their characters more fully. Without peculiar mannerisms, idiosyncratic habits, and extravagant gestures to rivet attention, a character must be developed more fully to compensate for the loss of drama.

Wintringham’s professional training provides him with skills that enable him to be a good detective. He possesses keen powers of observation, intense curiosity, dogged determination, and a strong commitment to truth and justice. Bell frequently draws parallels between doctoring and detecting—that is, between scientific investigation and police investigation.“That’s right.” The Inspector smiled approvingly. “You’re getting more thorough. Not so much of the I’ve-had-an-inspiration about you this time, is there?” “You forget that I am doing research of a kind,” answered David. “It is a very sobering experience.” “Really? I always understood it was packed full of thrills.” “Not a bit of it. You ought to know better. Your own work is research; it is also popularly regarded as exciting. Is it packed full of thrills?” “I should say not.” “There you are.” For a few minutes the two men reflected on their drab existence.

Inspector Steven Mitchell

More is revealed about Mitchell through direct description. In Murder in Hospital, he is presented as looking homely in the typical mackintosh and bowler hat of the Central Intelligence Division detective. He is further characterized in Death on the Borough Council (1937) as “a medium-sized man with an ordinary pleasant-featured face.” His family background is described in the first novel, which also includes an account of his motives for joining the police force.Inspector Mitchell came of a respectable middle-class family who had always lived in one or other of the South London suburbs, moving about for no apparent reason from one small and genteel villa to another. His father’s work in a city office tethered them within reasonable distance of it, but like so many suburban families they seemed unable to settle anywhere permanently. This fact and his varied schooling produced in young Mitchell a restlessness that was not really fundamental to his character, but made him refuse the chance of a job in the office where his father worked to seek the excitement he supposed inseparable from life in the police force. That he had been wrong in this supposition he never really noticed. The routine work and discipline were entirely to his liking. He settled down well and worked hard. He had good average brains and infinite patience, while his kind manner towards witnesses had often elicited facts that would have been withheld from more brilliant officers.

Neither character changes much, although Bell makes an effort to represent...

(The entire section is 2162 words.)