Source: Review Copy (British Library)
At the start of this week I reviewed Murder in the Museum (1938), which was near the beginning of Rowland’s career and now nearing the end of the week my next Rowland read has skipped ahead to a much later novel. Murder in the Museum had a lot of potential but was let down by its final section so when reading Calamity in Kent (1950) I was interested to see if time and experience had remedied this. In short I would have to say yes it has but I’ll go into more detail about that later.
Calamity in Kent begins with our narrator, Jimmy London who is a journalist (like Henry Fairhurst in Murder in the Museum) convalescing in the seaside resort of Broadgate. However, a morning walk leads to London returning to work as he comes across Aloysius Bender, the operator of the Broadgate lift, who on arriving at work found a dead body with a knife in its back inside the lift. Keen to make a scoop London questions Bender, discovering that there are only two keys to the lift – one kept by Bender and one at the local council office. So how did the body get inside? A brief examination of the corpse yields the victim’s name, John Tilsley and his hotel address. Whilst Bender finally goes for the police, London pockets a notebook from the victim, containing mysterious abbreviated notes and numbers. He is visited by a mysterious man calling himself Dr Cyrus Watford, who claims he recognises the man and knows he is a ‘bad lot’. The impending arrival of the police though leads to his rapid retreat from the crime scene. The police arrival presents a fresh surprise for London as his old acquaintance Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard (who has been holidaying in the area) is involved in the case.
Inspector Shelley who seems much more open to collaborators in this case (in contrast to Murder in the Museum), suggests that he and London pool their information, a scheme London is keen to take Shelley up on. This does not stop London “forgetting” to show Shelley Tilsley’s notebook. Both London and Shelley’s early investigative work reveals the idea that Tilsley was involved in some form of black market work. This is reinforced by a brief trip to London, when London uncovers another notebook in Tilsley’s flat. It is this second notebook which brings new suspects to the case and after finally handing in both of the notebooks London goes to interview those on the list who are residing in Broadgate. At first this seems to do little more than provide further confirmatory information of Tilsley’s dodgy dealings. But this changes the following day when another body is found in the lift, leading Shelley and London to realise the dangers of knowing too much in this case and there is also suggestion that Tilsley was up to more than selling black market goods.
Further violence is to follow, but has the killer gone one step too far? London is also saddled with the task of trying to prove another character’s innocence. Though this seems the least of his worries when Shelley comes to London with a dangerous preposition, one which could give London the scoop of a life time – but only if he lives to tell the tale!
Jimmy London is an interesting amateur sleuth who he is keen to ferret out the truth behind these killings. Moreover, in contrast to some fictional female detectives who question their abilities, London is very sure of himself:
‘I don’t think I’m an unduly conceited man, but I do know my own worth and my own qualities.’
However, there is a slightly darker or sadder side to London’s investigative work. He likens his obsessive interest in the case to a man who has a terminal illness who is constantly checking himself for symptoms: ‘Just as his disease haunts the invalid, so the murder was haunting me.’ Moreover, when London wakes up he says that:
‘Then I remembered, suddenly, that I was a newspaperman, given the job of investigating a highly unpleasant murder. Even the sunshine seemed to lose some of its tonic quality.’
Consequently it seems like London has a dual response to the murder investigation. On the one hand he is excited, curious and sees how he can benefit from it career wise, but there is also a sense of unease. Whilst it is possible that both these qualities are part of his character, I did wonder whether these moments of unease were included by Rowland to create atmospherics in keeping with slightly ‘thrillerish’ nature of the novel, a term Martin Edwards uses in the introduction of this story.
I already mentioned how Inspector Shelley seems much more comfortable working with London than with Fairhurst and I think this might be because they have worked on cases before, so Shelley knows how capable London is. Additionally I think London comes across as much more competent than Fairhurst. There is still an interesting relationship between London and Shelley as although London does take some liberties in withholding evidence for a time, London remains conscious of keeping in Shelley’s good books. Moreover, I think Shelley is perhaps more calculating in his interactions with London. However this does not stop London from being able to see the truth behind some of Shelley’s tactics. For example London says:
‘I had previously heard Shelley philosophising in this manner, and had at first thought it interesting. Now, however, I knew that it was often his way of side-stepping a question he was anxious to avoid…’
Overall I think this is a much stronger novel than Murder in the Museum and the choice of killer is a satisfying one and fits well within the overall thrillerish nature of the novel and is not melodramatic. This contrasts with Murder in the Museum where the thrillerish ending and killer did not fit with the rest of the novel which was more overtly a whodunit. Some readers may wonder why an undercover policeman was not given London’s final task in the investigation, but I think London had to be involved in the dramatic finish due to the fact he is the narrator. This book has been heralded as a locked room/impossible crime novel but I think this is a little misleading. The unusual murder scene is good but this is not a novel to be read for its working out of an impossible crime situation (in the way you would read a Carr novel) as this part of the novel is a minor one. This was not an issue for me though as I found this an enjoyable read with a strong narrative style, characterisation and pace. Out of the two new British Library reprints I would recommend reading this one first.
Final Thought – I might be clutching at straws but I wondered if the narrator’s name was in anyway linked to John Griffith, who was an American novelist and journalist who was known as Jack London. London as a surname is quite an unusual one and Jimmy and Jack are kind of similar hence my wondering if there was a connection.
Les Blatt – Classic Mysteries – Calamity in Kent