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.”
Suffice to say, the shadowing has nothing to do with Moss’ Jewish status and everything to do with suspicions surrounding him on account of his position relative to others in the case. Were he a red-headed Irishman, Shelley would still want him shadowed. So there’s again slight basis here for a complaint that “Oh, so Jewish people are easy to recognise as Jews just by looking at them, are they?”, but this feels again rather weak ground to have to defend the novel on. The comedian Nish Kumar has some wonderful material on being asked questions about Muslim attitudes when his parents are in fact Hindu, showing that this sort of easy assumption — if that’s even the point Rowland is making — is still a prevalent and unfortunate part of society, and again if this is what Edwards feels the need to defend I question the wisdom or necessity of doing so.
See, because here’s my point: if you tell people “Well, there are attitudes in what you’re about to read that will be offensive to some of you” then someone will find those attitudes and will be offended by them. We are, as a race, more enlightened and intelligent than to need this sort of hand-holding; hell, I wouldn’t have even noticed it if Edwards hadn’t flagged it up himself, and at most I would have praised the dismissal of Fascist attitudes mentioned above as a positive thing in the historical context that this was originally published.
The difficulty lies in failing to perceive the difference between mentioning that someone is Jewish and being offensive towards Jewish people. This sort of reactionary alacrity, jumping in to preclude objections that are phenomenally unlikely to be raised anyway, will do the reputation of such work no good, especially when the ground for any complaint are so thin and so clearly unsupported by anything other than the use of a particular word. You could replace every mention of “Jew” with “Scotsman” and it would honestly still make as much sense — though give a weird impression of fascists — without giving rise to cries of xenophobia. This does not claim to offer any perspective on the Jewish identity in society, is no dissection of the flaws of the Jewish faith or issues arounf heredity…it’s a light thriller, nothing more, and pretending there’s anything here to cause any offence seems an oddly retrograde thing to do.
Yes, you’re right, Edwards does go on to say “It seems abundantly clear from the context that Rowland had no intention to be offensive towards Jewish people…” but by then the damage and the potential for manufactured ill-feeling is already done. If the issue legitimately needs raising then of course raise it and face it, but don’t bring it up and then dismiss it as unimportant; that’s the approximate equivalent of saying “Oh, I thought you were trying to lose weight…actually, forget I said anything”.
Okay, I’ve gone on long enough; let discussion commence…
I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Staircase.
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The Arabian Nights Murder because both concern a, well, a murder. In a museum.