It is understandable that we, as readers, hope for everything we read to be good. However, it is also unlikely that this will be the case, and so sometimes we have to make do with what a book actually offers us. It may not be good, so is it interesting? Does it tell us something new about the era in which it is set or was written? Failing that, is it at least enjoyable? Murder in the Museum (1938), the first of two John Rowland books published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, is not especially good, but it is a lot of fun. And I’ll take fun. Fun is underrated. I could broadside this for its many flaws and failings, but the truth is I ripped through it, didn’t take it too seriously, and had a great time.
Henry Fairhurst — a meek, unassuming man, very much brow-beaten by his domineering sister, and with more than a little of Anthony Berkeley’s Ambrose Chitterwick about him — encounters a dead body in the British Museum’s reading room (precursor to the British Library proper, it would appear) and is swept into the reluctant auspices of Inspector Shelley and Sergeant Cunningham as they try to track down the killer. Essentially, that is the plot. Shelley and Cunningham investigate, Fairhurst brings them information as he looks into things separately, and while Shelley bemoans Fairhurst’s interruptions there can be no denying that many of this amateur’s observations have a heavy bearing in solving the case. And it’s just as well he is there to chip in, because Shelley — despite repeated authorly assurances about his fame and the brilliance of Scotland Yard — is so hilariously incompetent that it nearly defies belief.
However, the good stuff: Fairhurst is a lovely character. From first observing the dead man with his tie “so terrifyingly askew” to the meek way he is demeaned by his shrewish sister, there’s no attempt to sympathise his actions or sanitise his timid ways, but he still remains likeable. And the following might be one of my favourite sentences in all my reading ever:
“Good Lord!” Henry Fairhurst did not often permit himself the use of strong language of this sort, but he felt that this was a privileged occasion.
Elsewhere, little snatches of character — like Cunningham, elevated to the trustful position of interviewing a key suspect, “rack[ing] his brains for the next question, which he knew must be hiding its gentle head somewhere” — Fairhurst’s reflection on his treatment at the hands of his sister Sarah as the case draws to a close — are smartly captured, and Rowland has some limited skill with atmosphere when he takes the time to include it. Lamps throwing shadows in a graveyard while a coffin is exhumed might be rich pickings, but you still have to actually write it well; and then there’s the following, as a car-full of policemen chase down an unlikely lead based on Shelley’s surmise:
The paler colours of gas lamps took their place, and then the hideous sheen of the newer type of daylight lamps made their faces look ghastly as they peered at the road where it slipped away, and endless shiny ribbon ahead.
There are, however, also problems. Most of them stem from Shelley himself, who is something of a prick and yet praised in such vaunted terms as are usually reserved for Sherlock Holmes. To take one example: when Fairhurst has brought them most of the information that has developed the case — including spotting a key detail that all of Scotland yard apparently overlooked — and is able to dredge from memory a key clue from nine years previously that massively shortens the odds on their catching the killer, Shelley can’t help but gripe that his key witness has let him down because one minute detail eludes him. Mention is made of Shelley’s and Cunningham’s previous successes but how anyone could put up with the inspector for more than 200 pages is beyond me…!
Part of the problem, too, is that Rowland is just not a very skilled writer. There are a handful of characters, but mostly just people with different colours of hair and varying BMIs, and any attempt to weave verisimilitude into proceedings feel so ham-handed that you sort of wonder why he bothered — like Shelly phoning another police station and making enquiries about a related case “having first given the secret police sign which indicates that a fellow limb of the law is making the enquiry”. I’m sorry, what was that? There’s also a frustrating habit of narrative pleonasm: I’m not quoting directly, but it goes something like “He merely nodded. He knew how important it was that time not be wasted, so he didn’t want to take longer over this than necessary. It was vital they move quickly. Any delay could mean life or death. The need for efficiency was great, they had to progress in this matter as fast as humanly possible” — fucking get on with it, then!!!
However, the pace is generally good even though the story is thin; it won’t take you very long to read, and there’s much fun if you don’t take it to heart too greatly (I shall leave the pronunciation of “Penistone” up to the individual). There’s no detection as such, and it won’t delight those of you who want some complexity and cleverness in your plots — think of it like a John Buchan novel with an attitude update, it’s much more thriller than detection, more reliant on coincidence than clues — but equally a lot of people will enjoy the lightness and ease of what we have here. Not the classic the series promises, but enjoyable enough if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing.
Worthy of separate consideration, and likely to take far too long to include in the review itself, is something Martin Edwards flags up in his introduction regarding the references to a Jewish character in the text. To wit:
One aspect of this book which calls for comment is the presentation of a character who happens to be Jewish. Readers will appreciate that some of the language used would not be regarded as appropriate in a novel written today because of an element of stereotyping.
Now, firstly, I completely applaud the decision not to edit out any potentially offensive, and clearly dated, attitudes. I’ve written before of the wrongness of editorialising in GAD reprints and completely agree that a text should be presented as originally written. But, secondly, it seems an entirely unusual thing to flag up before reading the book because, honestly, there’s literally nothing here that could cause any offence. I shall even take you through every reference to the Jewish character in question and Jews in general verbatim to make my point:
On page 47, at the introduction of the name Moses Moss to the case, we have a character saying “He is, as his name should indicate, a Jew”. Now, fine, maybe there’s something about the name Moses or the surname Moss that would in 1938 have had peculiarly semitic connotations, but straining for any insult here seems trying way too hard to take issue with. When we meet Moss he is intelligent, well-present, gainfully employed in an honest business, and has no suspicion attached to his name. As presentations go, he comes out of this better than the two women in the plot, but I don’t see any defense of perceived misogyny in the text.
On page 91, Moss is interviewed about his connection with the dead man, and says the following:
“He was my uncle, but I never saw much of him. In fact, I think that when my mother married my father she was more or less cut off by her family — I think that they had some sort of prejudice against Jews, you know, and did not like the idea of her marrying into a Jewish household.”
Now, yes, this demonstrates the existence of anti-Semitism, but again there’s nothing here that anyone could take particular issue with. Hell, in the society this book now finds itself reprinted, the raft of possible objections to marriage — be they religious difference, homophobia, transphobia, issues surrounding caste, perceptions of tradition, whatever — are so many and varied as to make any concerns over this being included in the book almost hilariously quaint by comparison. It can easily be understood that this was a form of prejudice encountered because it’s a form of prejudice still encountered today.
The following page sees Moss referred to as “the young Jew” in dialogue attribution (“Went to my firm’s place off Regent Street,” answered the young Jew). He’s young, we’ve established he comes from a Jewish family…nothing to see here, except that it either denies or is ignorant of the doctrine of Jewish matrilineality…and, frankly, anyone reaching for that as grounds for contention is going to put their back out long before they get taken seriously.
Possibly the point Edwards feels needs defending, then, comes on page 134, with a moneylender described as:
“Nasty piece of work. Greasy little fellow who will do anything for a few pounds. 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.”
All I see happening here is an acknowledgement of Fascist attitudes, which would have been well-known on the continent by this point. It then goes on to say, literally, “it’s ignorant to paint this single unpleasant person as in any way typical of the Jewish race.” I feel there must be an emoji that would appropriately communicate my overwhelming sense of “Uh, so what’s the problem?” but I am, of course, far too old to understand emojis. The statement here of negative attitudes exist, and generalisations are inaccurate is, uhm, correct. Feel free to disagree, but I just don’t see whatever difficulties others might.
Finally, on page 166, as Moss leaves Shelley’s office, he phones a subordinate and say:
“A young man has just left my office — handsome young Jew — and I want him shadowed night and day.”
18 thoughts on “#297: Murder in the Museum (1938) by John Rowland”
Thanks for the review, which confirms the mediocre ratings of the other reviews I’ve read. 😦 I got the impression that one of the crimes presented itself to be a locked-room or impossible conundrum? But in any case I fear I should give this one a miss…
I have a feeling the purported locked room was in Calamity in Kent but turned out not to be for reasons I do not know. This was a light, fun, easy read — I wouldn’t call it “mediocre” so much as “undistinguished” — and you’ll be able to cope in the genre without having read it, but don’t write it off altogether. As I say, fun is underrated!
I may in time get round to Calamity in Kent; it might have the same problems, but then I think it did come 12 years later, so maybe Rowland ironed a lot of them out by then. I’m not going to write it off ion this evidence alone, that’s certain.
This wasn’t a strong read for me either. The thriller component fitted onto the end of investigation definitely didn’t work for me. I think Calamity in Kent is a better effort by Rowland.
It’s how many weaker detective plots turn into a “race to the villain” come the end — the skills necessary to keep everything in tension until the final-chapter reveal obviously being rather lacking from the foregoing narrative. I didn’t mind it, but I didn’t love it; it’s a book whose details will nag at the edge of my memory in a few months rather than one I’ll recall in any real detail. But that’s fine. Helps the great ones shine even brighter.
Good to hear that KiC is a stronger title, too. I’ll keep an eye out for it.
At this point, I’m looking for any reason not to add a book to my TBR pile. (You tweeted about sine author Curtis wrote about, and I added all three titles to my Amazon cart!)
Re:the more interesting point you bring up about the Jewish character – I do think cultural identity was a common descriptor in fiction that we’ve moved away from today and now decry as discriminatory. A lot of people from eastern and middle Europe have physical similarities, and a lot of them were Jews. As you inferred, a lot of Irishmen share physical traits. I get your point here, and I agree with it. I suppose Martin could have discussed it in these terms, rather than “Get ready for some nasty references to Jews” (in whatever way he put it.) The truly nasty references – like the ones found, alas, in The Hollow – are the ones that ascribe stereotypical qualities to a person because of their race: avarice, laziness, stupidity. But we are an overly sensitive bunch these days, so I appreciate Martin wanting to be, er, sensitive to our sensitivities.
But we are an overly sensitive bunch these days
It’s one of the reasons our language is losing its richness. There are so many words, even quite innocuous words, that we’re afraid to use. We censor ourselves constantly. And the language becomes steadily more dull because it’s been reduced to a pre-school level where no-one’s feelings must ever be hurt.
This one is still residing on my TBR-pile, but I read and reviewed Calamity in Kent last year. My experience was pretty similar to the one you had with Murder in the Museum. A very quick, fun read, but not very distinguished as a detective story and this can be blamed on the thriller-ish material diluting the detective elements of the plot. But not a bad read and rather liked the seaside setting.
Oh, you should not expect anything fancy from the locked room, because it is one in name only.
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Yeah, I got them impression from…somewhere (possibly your review!). Ah, well, at least we’re not also champing for more Rowland to be added to the imaginary piles of potential classics we’ll never get to read because no-one will reprint them 🙂
Everyone’s being very polite, but this book is an absolute stinker – the plot is so ludicrous. How it got published the first time is remarkable; that it should have been published again is a crime in itself!
It’s really more bland than ludicrous — hell, if this is ludicrouse then some of the plots of far more successful forays into fictionl murder are downright cuckoo! But, yeah, it’s not great. I enjoyed it with many caveats, so I can totally see how a less positive opinion could be formed.
I guess I’m being harsh about this book because I’m looking at it from a writer’s point of view more than a reader’s or critic’s. And the ludicrous bit I was thinking of (if I’ve recalled it correctly) was where the villain is trying to get the girl to marry someone else (not even himself) by force. How’s that going to work, then? Also, these British Library books look so promising with their charming covers that maybe my disappointment with this one was magnified.
Well — and SPOILERS! — if she marries the other man, he has access to her inheritance and so he (the husband) can pay off the debts he owes to the villain. It’s…novel, I’ll give Rowland that.
What bugs me about this is the timescale of it all. If the villain had waited a couple of days he would likely have gotten away with it. But, well, plot must plot…
As far as I can recall, I agree with you on this one. Not one I’d read again but some nice lines here and there.
As for the warning – I agree, it does seem misplaced. Perhaps some of the previous titles had caused complaint and made the publishers over cautious? Not that I can think of any off-hand with particularly awful attitudes.
I haven’t read all the BLCCs at all — maybe not even half of them — but nothing with an especially negative viewpoint springs to mind. And, anyway, wouldn’t “Hey, another book did this insensitively so we’re going to address that here, in a completely different book” be a little…weird?
I mean that it might make them oversensitive in checking and red-flagging any future books, in order to prevent it from happening again.
As I say, though, no reason to suppose that this did happen, pure unfounded speculation.
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I wouldn’t disagree with your assessment that regardless of its merits, the book is quite enjoyable. This was my first BLCC so I have a soft spot for it and I remember being surprised that I have never encountered the simple method of hiding the poison in another story. I am not in a rush to read more by Rowland though.
The only good thing I can say about C. Daly King’s Obelists Fly High is that it employs a simialr method of poisoning with the added warning that a man will be killed at a precise time…and pulls it off in a similar way using a manner that is actually very clever. The rest of the book is horsecrap, however.
I’m with you on that assessment of Rowland, too — there is the extra title from the BL, and I might track it down at some point, but my TBR is…hideously well-stocked and I need to get through a kot of other books I have more interest in first. Though, if another Rowland was published by the BL and people started raving about it I’d certainly consider it…