Calamity in Kent by John Rowland

I’m gradually making my way through the lovely pile of British Library Crime Classics that seem to have amassed at the Ramblings lately; some as gifts and some as review copies from the rather super BL. Other Half presented me with two titles I don’t have over the festive season in the form of John Rowland’s pair of crime adventures, and I posted about “Murder in the Museum” here. The other one is “Calamity in Kent”, published much later than “Museum” in 1950, and it turned out to be an enjoyable, if perhaps a little light, read.

“Calamity” once again features Rowland’s regular detective, Shelley, but like the earlier book is narrated by a character from outside the police force who manages to become involved in the investigation. That person is Jimmy London, a Fleet Street reporter who’s convalescing in the Kent seaside town of Broadgate (a kind of amalgamation of Broadstairs and Margate, it seems). As the book opens, he’s startled to be in on the discovery of a dead body in the cliff-side railway; but the lift was locked from the outside and there is only one set of keys, so Jimmy (and the reader) are instantly faced with a potential locked room mystery. Despite the fact that he’s recovering from a (mysterious and unspecified) illness, London’s reporter instincts kick in and he’s fortunate to find that an old friend, in the form of Inspector Shelley, is down in Broadgate and gets put on the case; doubly fortunate, because the local Inspector takes an instant dislike to him!

Shelley, however, is a more imaginative man and is happy to ally himself to external investigators who can possibly wheedle things out of people which a policeman wouldn’t. Soon, Jimmy and Shelley are hot on the trail, tracking down the murdered man’s fiancée and business associates. However, another murder follows hot on the heels of the first, and the detecting duo are hard pressed to find out the reason for the killings or indeed identify the killer him/herself. It seems that there is a possible angle of black marketeering, but the items being sold on are so varied that it’s hard to work out what’s going on. However, a chance remark by a suspect’s girlfriend gives them a hint as to what might be going on behind the scenes, and it’s then that things get dangerous…

A cliff side railway – hopefully with no dead bodies inside….

“Calamity in Kent” was great fun to read, although not so much a pure crime classic as a criminal caper with thriller elements. Shelley and London are an entertaining pair, and watching London gathering his material and spinning what he could to a Fleet Street editor was very entertaining. The plot was also intriguing, although not entirely unpredictable, and the supporting characters were perhaps a tad 2D. But I liked Jimmy’s enthusiastic narration, and the story was fast-paced with the action never being allowed to flag. In fact, ‘action’ is a good word to apply to the latter half of the book as it ended up going at a bit of a breakneck pace with Jimmy becoming a potential victim, kidnappings, murder threats, gangs and a ringleader who I actually didn’t suspect although that was quite cleverly done and looking back I should have picked up on it!

The setting was rather nicely evoked as well, with the typical British seaside town, full of a variety of hotels and boarding houses, landladies ranging from motherly to grim, and of course the ubiquitous English pub (although one of those does turn out to be not what it seems). And the 1950s era is also fun to see, still suffering from post-War shortages and rationing – it’s timely to be reminded that this latter continued for 9 more years after the end of WW2 and so there was still a burgeoning trade in restricted items.

I’ve found quite a bit of variety in my readings of the British Library Crime Classics; some are books of real substance, playing with the genre, such as Anthony Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolates Case”; others are definitely lighter, more of a frothy confection if you like, and certainly “Calamity in Kent” falls into that latter category as Martin Edwards acknowledges in his introduction. This is not necessarily a criticism, and I did thoroughly enjoy my reading of it – just right when you need a bit of old-fashioned escapism!