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A light-hearted and entertaining escapade @BL_Publishing

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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!

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A Cracking Start to the Year!

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Murder in the Museum by John Rowland

Well, start as you mean to go on, I suppose! (With a winner, that is…) Technically speaking, this book actually belongs to 2017, as I finished on the last day of that year, but I’m still playing catch up with reviewing (and some pieces I’m doing for Shiny New Books) and so here it is… “Murder in the Museum” was one of the gifts OH presented me with at the end of the year, and I was most impressed he found one I hadn’t read and didn’t own – especially as he has no idea where any of my books are shelved in the house… MITM came out in 2016 and is a most apt title for the British Library Crime Classics series, as it’s set in the Reading Room of the British Museum! Rowland is definitely a forgotten author, and this book has been out of print since its initial appearance in 1938; so ripe for rediscovery then!

The book opens with the discovery of a dead professor in the aforementioned Reading Room, and the body is found by one Henry Fairhurst. Henry is a timid bachelor who lives with a battle-axe of a sister, but his meek exterior hides a slightly more steely nature and he’s soon embroiled in the investigation. The enquiry is led by Inspector Shelley (apparently Rowland’s regular sleuth) who isn’t averse to collaborating with Fairhurst – especially as it seems that the latter can often bring more information or a different slant to things.

The plot soon thickens, as it seems that the dead professor, Julius Arnell, was an expert in Elizabethan literature, and wont to become involved in academic disputes on the subject. And oddly some of his colleagues/rivals seem to have met unpleasant fates, leading the detecting duo to speculate on whether the finer points of literary research are the cause of the killings. Events are complicated by financial implications: Arnell appears to be connected to a Texan oil millionaire; there are questions about his will; Arnell’s daughter might inherit, but her fiance is a suspect who has connections to another victim; and there is an impoverished cousin lurking in the background as a rival to Arnell’s daughter regarding any legacy. Dramatic and exciting events lead up to a chase all over the country and a very satisfactory denouement!

MITM turned out to be the perfect read to wind up and year (and also to wind down a bit too!) The setting was wonderful, of course (and as I pass the BM regularly when I visit London and set out to visit the LRB bookshop, I loved the fact I was familiar with the location). Inspector Shelley and his sidekick Cunningham were the perfect GA police pair; however, the introduction of Henry added an extra fun element. It was particularly entertaining to see him constantly surprising Shelley with extra bits of information or unexpected deductions, and it was lovely to see him in at the kill.

Were there any down sides? Well, as Martin Edwards mentioned in his introduction, the question of the portrayal of Jewish people does come up again (as it so often does in murder mysteries from this era), but despite Rowland dealing with his characters in a slightly stereotyped way things are not as clear-cut as they might seem. At one point Shelley refers to a money-lender in disparaging terms but then goes on to say “He’s one of those unpleasant people whom the Fascists are so fond of portraying as the typical Jew. Nothing of the sort really, of course, and to call him such is a libel on the Jewish race.” This is not completely unproblematic, but I guess is better than the usual dismissive attitude that can be taken, and presumably shows an awareness by Rowland, in 1938, of the threat that was looming in Europe. As the author was also a journalist, this perhaps could be expected.

Anyway – “Murder in the Museum” was a fun read from start to finish, with plenty of humour mixed in with the drama and the action, and another winner from the British Library Crime Classics imprint. I liked the setting particularly, and the interactions between Henry and his sister were great fun. On the strength of this book, it’s a shame Rowland has been out of print for so long; fortunately, I do have another one of his titles lurking on the TBR courtesy of OH!

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