Murder in the Museum & Calamity in Kent by John Rowland

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Reviewed by Harriet

Here at Shiny we love our reprints, and are always delighted to include reviews of one or more of the British Library’s Crime Classics series. So when a nice big parcel arrived from them the other day, I was ready to grab anything that fitted our brief (publication within a couple of months of the issue).

Murder in the Museum, first published in 1938 was first up – it could have been made for me, as I’m an Emeritus Professor of English Literature and have spent many hours in the reading room of the British Library, and this novel concerns the murder of an Emeritus Professor of English Literature in the reading room of the British Library. This is of course not the smart new library at St Pancras, but the wonderful rotunda room, set deep within the British Museum.

At first it seems as if Professor Julius Arnell has died from natural causes, but then a packet of poisoned sugared almonds is discovered in his pocket. Add to that the suspicious deaths of two more professors, both, like Arnell, specialists in Elizabethan literature, and you have a very curious case for Inspector Shelley to solve. Aided, after a fashion, by ‘mild mannered museum visitor’ Henry Fairhurst, Shelley dashes around London before heading off to the wilds of the Yorkshire moors in pursuit of a wicked and cunning criminal. Some very dodgy characters are encountered along the way, ladies get into very frightening situations, and false identities figure largely. Sadly, though, the solution to the crimes has very little to do with Elizabethan literature.

Inspector Shelley obviously has a predilection for taking on amateurs to help him solve his cases. The same thing happens in Calamity in Kent (1950), but here we have a journalist, Jimmy London, who is convalescing after an operation in the seaside resort of Broadgate. Jimmy, who narrates the novel, is an attractive character. He’s getting bored with the quiet life he’s been leading, with its walks along the promenade, coffees in little cafés, pints of beer in pubs, and the unappealing meals served up by his landlady, and feels ready to tackle something big and exciting. So, when he discovers a murdered man, locked in the carriage of the cliff railway, he’s only too delighted to give the Inspector any help he can.  And the Inspector (on loan from Scotland Yard) is only too happy to let him plunge in to some extremely delicate and frequently dangerous situations. Here (and it has to be said, rather frequently in these novels) a good deal of suspension of disbelief is called for.

I enjoyed this novel very much. 1950 is such a relatively short time ago that there’ll be people reading this who were born by then, but the book really does evoke an era so different from our own that it brings home forcibly the changes that have happened in many of our lifetimes. It seems in many ways such an innocent sort of life — naturally crimes were being committed as much as they are today, but even the crimes and their perpetrators have a rather delightfully vintage feel about them. I can’t tell you more without giving too much away, but you’ll meet some interesting characters both good and bad – I particularly liked Jimmy’s friends, the garage owner Tim Foster and his astonishingly beautiful fiancée Maya Johnson (blithely unaware of the effect she has when she walks into a pub). Then there’s the peculiar hotel owner Mrs Skilbeck, engaged to marry the first victim, and Aloysius Bender, the limping lift-man, and… But you’ll have to read it to get to know them all. Best of all, though, is Jimmy, delighted to act as an amateur detective, partly to get some scoops for his newspaper but partly because he has a real sense of adventure. He’s constantly interfering with crime scenes and removing important evidence, but Inspector Shelley is surprisingly willing to overlook all this. All part of the fun.

Born in 1907, John Rowland was a schoolteacher who eventually became a Unitarian minister. But writing was his real love, and at one point in his life he was making enough from it to resign from his day job. As the fifties went on, though, his novels came to seem old-fashioned, and publication dried up. How nice, then, that we can read him again after all these years.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

John Rowland, Murder in the Museum (British Library, 2016). 978-0712357845, 216 pp., paperback original. BUY at Blackwell’s (affiliate link)

John Rowland, Calamity in Kent (British Library, 2016). 978-0712357838, 270 pp., paperback original. BUY at Blackwell’s (affiliate link)