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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