“There were a lot of dangers on this river; that was the fascination of it.”
A drug addict commits suicide by drinking Lysol in her bleak tenement room. A barge full of cargo goes missing in a storm. An old lady holes up in an empty building scheduled for demolition, determined to stay in her home until the last possible moment. These are all typical scenes from London’s Docklands. Sergeant Chandler comes to suspect that these incidents are all related, but he may be out of his depth.
While The Port of London Murders is pretty standard as an organized-crime thriller, it is much more successful as a portrait of life in the Docklands. These lives are full of poverty, hard work, and danger, but also offer moments of unexpected beauty and a closeness to nature that other Londoners do not enjoy.
Much of the intrigue swirls around a particular house in Fripp Street. The entire block is being torn down to make room for a block of flats, but the irascible Mrs. Bowerman refuses to budge. Her neighbors, the Dunwoodys and the Popes, have taken advantage of the situation to put off their own move, despite the eeriness of the empty buildings. Mr. Dunwoody is too shiftless to find a new home, his wife has a weak heart, and their young daughter Violet suffers from “nerves,” which is quite understandable after she discovers the dead body of their lodger, Mary Holland.
Mrs. Holland’s death looks like a routine suicide, but Sergeant Chandler is left with unanswered questions. Where did she get her drugs? And why, if she had access to heroin, would she choose to die a painful death by poison instead?
A few blocks away, Leslie Harvey’s love of adventure is nearly the death of him. The boy is irresistibly drawn to the river, where sailor Harry Reed saves him from drowning. Harry soon falls for Leslie’s sister June. She has a good job in a posh lingerie shop, but one of the salesmen won’t leave her alone. Gordon Longford always seems to be hanging around even after she rejects him, almost as if something else is attracting him to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Leslie can’t keep away from the river, and some of the things he finds there are of great interest to police…
The reader will not be in suspense as to whether and how all of these events are connected. Even granting that this is a thriller rather than a detective story, an awful lot of information is shared up front. While some key details are withheld, enough of the crime plot is revealed to give the reader a very good idea of what’s happening. It is to Josephine Bell’s credit that she is still able to create some urgency around the investigation, but she certainly could have made things easier on herself by holding back a little more.
The most fascinating character is Gordon Longford, a man who is clearly dangerous regardless of his involvement in the crime plot. Despite a superficial charm, Longford is without real emotion or empathy. His single-minded focus on getting what he wants, at any cost, makes his actions unpredictable.
Pamela watched him with an angry face. No one treated her as this man did, not even troubling to be polite to her, indifferent to her beauty except when it suited him to make love to her, careless of her money, though he took it readily enough when he had need of it; above all, utterly impervious to any changes of mood in her, so that her anger, her jealousy, her frequent unhappiness, her more rare tenderness, all passed him by, dashing themselves in vain against the hard encircling rock of his complete selfishness.
While the mystery is merely adequate, the real attraction of the book is its portrayal of the lively dockside community. Down at heel, but always teeming with life, Fripp Street forms its own self-contained world, an urban village that lives and dies by the tides.
But the water of London river spun in the pools and flowed away—as it had flowed past the silent awe-struck group on Jim Sawyer’s landing-stage, past the launches waiting vainly for the suction to be cut off at the Saw Mill, past the wharfs and the factories, the cranes, the houses, the walls and beaches, the fettered ships at their moorings, the heavy, loaded barges, the docks and warehouses and rubbish dumps and old forgotten workings, past the low banks and little hills, to the wide, gull-haunted reaches, and the great sands, and the sea.
The story is full of details that build up a robust picture of how these people live while also providing valuable clues. This feels like a real community and the relationships between the characters, however fleeting or random some of them might be, ring true. Strangers, neighbors, lovers, and relatives all have their parts to play, wandering in and out of the story in an organic way.
As a doctor, Bell also provides insight into the conditions that might tempt these people into crime. Two physicians play roles in the story. Dr. Ellis is the cheapest doctor in the neighborhood, and his patients get what they pay for. Most of them cannot afford any kind of private physician, even an inexpensive one, yet their pride will not allow them to accept “charity.” Dr. Freeman, who works at the free clinic, is exasperated by patients like the Dunwoodys, who manage to extract every service they could possibly qualify for through their sheer, annoying persistence. Even so, however, he acknowledges that his patients all live with chronic diseases that can never really be cured due to their impoverished living conditions. And their hardships start young. One small child has spent so much of her life in the hospital that she sobs at the sight of a doctor. A local woman was already suffering from arthritis even as a young bride. It’s hard to blame the Dunwoodys for taking advantage of the few perks available to them (though one rather suspects the author’s sympathies are with Dr. Freeman). As vibrant as the Docklands appear, its people are fighting for their lives every day, and mostly losing.
For some of Fripp Street’s residents, the danger is exactly what lures them to the river, while others are simply trying to get by as best they can. The Port of London Murders could benefit from a stronger mystery, but it mostly makes up for that in its portrayal of life on the docks, where nothing can hide in the river for long, not even murder. Even the deepest secret is sure to bob to the surface eventually.
The Port of London Murders’ great merit lies in its depiction of Thirties London’s seedy but vital dockland, with its tugboat captains, drunken old women, quarrelling neighbours, and inquisitive small boys. As a detective story, it’s rather ordinary.
It was, for me, merely a rather ordinary thriller. It wasn’t great, more like another “it’s okay” read.
The Port of London Murders is available in the UK from British Library Crime Classics.