Murder in the Museum (1938) by John Rowland

Source: Review Copy (British Library)

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: More than two people

Murder in the Museum

The British Library has once more brought out of obscurity another writer from the Golden Age. John Rowland (1907-1984) was born in Cornwall, the son of a grocer and he always wanted to be an author, but a poor grade at university (he was doing a degree in chemistry,) pushed him into teaching. But due to this degree though he did get to work in the scientific civil service during WW2. Working at the Rationalist Press arguably led to Rowland adopting humanist principles, but I don’t think this is extensively noticeable in his writing. Rowland’s views changed in the 1950s when he became involved in Unitarianism and he even trained as a lay preacher.

Murder in the Museum (1938) unsurprisingly begins at the British Museum reading rooms, with Henry Fairhurst (a rather meek man who gets henpecked by his sister Sarah), playing one of his favourite games – the Sherlock Holmes game where he tries to guess the occupation of the other reading room users. Though Fairhurst’s guess that ‘that tough-looking specimen, over there… is a confidence man,’ when in fact the person in question was an expert on Lepidoptera, suggests he is perhaps not that good at his game. Additionally, Fairhurst’s imagination tends to run away with him such as when he speculates over why a man is snoring in the reading room. Could it boredom or tiredness? No! Kidnap or robbery are much more likely. The fancifulness of Fairhurst’s ideas is commented on by the narrator when they says:

‘It is possibly unnecessary to add that Henry’s detective-story reading was usually to be found in the more blood thirsty shelves of the local lending library.’

However, when Fairhurst goes to rouse the sleeping man, whose snoring has recently ceased, he finds more than he bargains for when he discovers that the man, Professor Julius Arnell (an expert on minor Elizabethan playwrights) is dead, poisoned with cyanide. Inspector Shelley (named after Rowland’s mother’s maiden name), along with Sergeant Cunningham are called in to solve the case.

This seems to be an alternative cover for the British Library edition, though I'm not sure if this version is available for purchase
This seems to be an alternative cover for the British Library edition, though I’m not sure if this version is available for purchase

There are a number of possible motives for Arnell’s death. Being a wealthy man his money may have been of interest to those who stood to inherit, namely his daughter Violet and nephew Moses Moss. Moreover, Arnell had also disapproved of his daughter’s engagement to a local science teacher, Harry Baker, who he thinks is only after Violet’s inheritance. Or perhaps the motive is an academic one as Arnell had a number of rivals in his field of expertise. Fairhurst is an amusing character as despite his mild and meek appearance, inside he has much more adventurous aspirations and is keen to get involved in the case. Though the initial responses by his sister and Inspector Shelley seem to veto this possibility. However, a chance remark made by his sister soon helps to reverse this situation as through his friend a reporter, Angus Macgregor, he discovers that 5 months earlier a friend of Arnell’s Professor Wilkinson (also an expert on Elizabethan dramatists) also died in the British Museum reading room due to heart failure. But in light of Arnell’s death some characters begin to wonder if Wilkinson’s death was a natural one after all. A random thing I noticed when reading this book was that when Fairhurst tells Inspector Shelley of Wilkinson’s death, Shelley asks their own expert about the death – yet this expert like Fairhurst’s friend is also Scottish and called Mac. A coincidence or just absentmindedness on Rowland’s part?

The theory that experts of Elizabethan dramatists are being targeted may seem a fanciful one but it seems less so when a third one bites the dust just outside the British Museum. The narrative shifts between Inspector Shelley, Sergeant Cunningham and Fairhurst, with each character finding out different pieces of information which help to solve the investigation. Inspector Shelley is not a particularly sympathetic man and is quite happy to use shock tactics in order to elicit further information from Violet, though Shelley does soften towards Fairhurst, who gets more involved. This involvement leads to further grandiose fantasies on Fairhurst’s part, who was:

‘plunged deep in a daydream in which he outwitted Scotland Yard as well as the cleverest brains in the underworld.’

His sister though brings him back down to earth saying, ‘You might… do something more than talk about it, Henry. Then we might think a little more of you as a detective.’ The relationship between Henry and his sister though a minor part of the story was enjoyable to read. A case builds up for one of the characters and an arrest is made, but in light of Violet’s abduction it seems current theories held by Shelley and Fairhurst are incorrect, emphasising the dangers of pursuing only one theory.

Murder in the Museum 3

The novel up to this point was good and I was envisaging a high rating for this novel. However, I feel Rowland lets himself down when he has his investigative characters undertake a man hunt in rural Yorkshire. Although Fairhurst’s role in the piece was quite funny due to him oscillating between feeling a sense of manliness that he thinks will stop him getting bossed by his sister (never going to happen) and moments of petulance when he is not allowed to get involved in the dangerous parts of the manhunt. The guilty man who we see through Violet’s eyes appears quite 2-dimensional and his criminal proposition involving enforced marriage felt like it came straight out of Victorian melodrama. Furthermore, the overall solution came across as a bit too over the top and even I spotted a few holes in the criminal’s plans. Moreover, some of the information proffered by Fairhurst felt a bit convenient.

However, I do have to say that due to Rowland’s plot driven narrative and fast pace a lot of these issues are not apparent until you close the book and think about it. When reading the story I initially wanted to give this novel 4.5/5 as narrative style and pace was excellent and the case had a number of odd features. Henry was an amusing amateur detective with dreams of grandeur. However, as the plot progressed and entered its final stages Rowland’s originality escaped him and the plot became filled with slightly too ridiculous melodrama e.g. a man hunt, kidnapping and a shootout, which I think let the story down for me. Although the last chapter was novel in its deployment of the epistle format and the narrative returns to its’ stronger beginnings. Despite this novel not quite living up to all my expectations I haven’t given up completely on Rowland and I will soon be reviewing another novel by Rowland called Calamity in Kent (1950).


4.5/5 for narrative style, majority of characterisation and initial set up of murders

3.25/5 for the ultimate solution and the degeneration of plot.


  1. “Murder in the Museum (1938) unsurprisingly begins in a reading room at the British Library”
    Not in 1938 it doesn’t.
    It was – as the title suggests – the British Museum Reading Room. Famous – according to Gerard Hoffnung – for its echo.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the review – I’m looking forward to the upcoming British Library imprints, but perhaps should lower my expectations for this one. 😦

    Excited to hear what you have to say about Basil Thomson!

    Liked by 1 person

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