Murder in the Museum, A British Library Crime Classic

BOOK: Murder in the Museum, A British Library Crime Classic
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Murder in the Museum

John Rowland

Poisoned Pen Press


Originally published in London in 1938 by Herbert Jenkins

Copyright © 2016 Estate of John Rowland

Introduction Copyright © 2016 Martin Edwards

Published by Poisoned Pen Press in association with the British Library

First E-book Edition 2016

ISBN: 9781464205804 ebook

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

The historical characters and events portrayed in this book are inventions of the author or used fictitiously.

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It is perhaps appropriate that the British Library should republish John Rowland's
Murder in the Museum
, which made its first appearance in 1938. At the time that Rowland's book came out, the United Kingdom's national library formed part of the British Museum, which in this book supplies a memorable crime scene.

Meek, mild-mannered Henry Fairhurst is undertaking research in the domed reading room at the Museum. “An assiduous reader of detective stories”, he indulges in idle speculation about his fellow occupants of the reading room. One red-haired individual who catches his eye appears to be asleep, but when Henry approaches him, he discovers that the man is dead. He has been poisoned with cyanide.

Inspector Shelley, who featured in most of Rowland's detective novels, takes charge of the inquiry, but Henry finds himself fascinated by the case, and strives to remain involved. Shelley is an affable fellow, and—as in several other John Rowland books—he proves willing to allow an amateur to assist with the investigation, generosity that may be surprising but tends to justify itself with results.

This combination of professional and amateur detectives, whether working side-by-side or as rivals, was not unusual in crime fiction of the 1930s. Henry Fairhurst is reminiscent of Ambrose Chitterwick, who featured in three excellent novels written by Anthony Berkeley, one of the most influential crime novelists of the era. Chitterwick, like Henry, is hen-pecked, and is subservient to a domineering aunt, much as Henry is bossed around by his formidable sister. The similarities are particularly apparent when one compares this book to Berkeley's
The Piccadilly Murder
, a cleverly contrived mystery which opens with Chitterwick witnessing a murder by cyanide whilst taking tea in a London hotel.

John Rowland was not an innovator, like Berkeley, but this novel is typical of many which appeared during the 1930s. 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. The British Library has given careful thought to this issue, but concluded that, on balance, it was right to present the text as originally written. It seems abundantly clear from the context that Rowland had no intention to be offensive towards Jewish people—quite the contrary—and modern readers will at least gain an understanding of attitudes and language that were the norm at the time this book was written, and which would be sacrificed by an attempt to impose twenty-first century editorial values.

Very little has previously been written about John Rowland. Thanks to information kindly supplied by his son Fytton, I am glad to be able to cast more light on the life of this long-neglected writer. John Herbert Shelley Rowland was born in Bodmin, Cornwall, in 1907, the son of a grocer. John was a traditional name in his family, Herbert was his own father's first name, and Shelley was his mother's maiden name. Rowland gave the latter name to his fictional detective, Inspector Henry Shelley.

After attending Bodmin Grammar School, and the sixth form at Plymouth College, Rowland read chemistry at Bristol University. A lower second class degree did not enable him to pursue a career in research, so he trained as a teacher, and in 1930 went to teach science at the Prior's School in Lifford, County Donegal. His long-term ambition, however, was always to be a writer, and after a couple of years he moved to London, securing an editorial job with Charles Watts—to whom
Murder in the Museum
is dedicated.

Watts was involved with the Rationalist movement (now called humanism) and some of Rowland's duties concerned running the Rationalist Press. He started to write his own detective stories in his spare time, and they were published by the firm of Herbert Jenkins. While in London, he socialised in literary circles, and his author friends included L.A.G. Strong, M.P. Shiel, and even Dylan Thomas. None of them were primarily associated with detective fiction, but Strong and Shiel dabbled in the genre, while Thomas co-wrote a spoof of the detective story that was not published until after his death. Rowland also became a close friend of the poet John Gawsworth (a pseudonym of Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong).

In 1937, Rowland married a nurse from Yorkshire, Gertrude Adams. When the Second World War started, he was conscripted into the scientific civil service instead of the armed forces, because he had a degree in chemistry. He worked in the management of armaments factories, initially at Woolwich Arsenal and later at various places around the country (including Thorp Arch, on the site of which the British Library's branch at Boston Spa now stands). The Rowlands' only child was born in 1944, and given one of Gawsworth's middle names, Fytton.

After the war ended, Rowland resumed working for Watts, and publishing detective stories. By 1950 he felt secure enough to resign from his day job, becoming a freelance writer. The family moved to Leeds, where they stayed for two years. In Leeds, however, Rowland's religious views underwent a fundamental change. Influenced by a Unitarian minister called Reginald Wilde, he abandoned humanism, and became a Unitarian. Not content with that, he resolved to become a Unitarian minister himself, and in 1952 he was appointed lay pastor in charge of the Unitarian church in Brighton. For several years he commuted from Brighton to attend Manchester College, Oxford, to train for the ministry. During this period he had little time to spare for writing, although after qualifying as a minister, he started writing again.

Reading tastes had changed, however, and Rowland was unable to find a market for detective stories of the kind he preferred. He decided to concentrate on non-fiction, and specifically on criminology and biographies of scientists and technologists aimed at teenagers. He also became the editor of a magazine called
The Unitarian
. His output declined gradually in quantity, but right up to his death he was a “stringer” covering the village in which he lived for the local weekly newspaper. He always gave his profession as “journalist” rather than “writer”.

Gertrude died in 1967, and Rowland later married Marguerite Miller, a widowed member of his congregation. His final church was in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and he retired to Somerset, dying in 1984 at the age of 76. By that time, his detective novels had been forgotten, but thanks to the British Library's Crime Classics series, readers now have the opportunity to rediscover them.

Martin Edwards

Chapter I


Beneath the high, gloomy dome, Henry Fairhurst looked around him. There was an air of deathly stillness in the place, and a silence broken only by the occasional rustle of pages and the subdued murmur of a borrower discussing books with an official. The British Museum Reading Room is a strange place, and Henry Fairhurst had not been within its privileged precincts for many a long day, but he had now managed to get hold of some literary research on behalf of an enterprising journalist who was contemplating the writing of a life of an obscure French courtesan in the seventeenth century.

Mr. Fairhurst did not see anything strange in the fact that he—the most respectable native of respectable Streatham—should be investigating the scandalous doings of the Paris
of three hundred years before. If his sister, who kept house for him, had uttered the word “mistress” in his hearing (save, of course, as applied to a lady who makes servants obey her whims) he would have blushed. Yet, without a blush or even a blench, he read the books of old-fashioned French historians in an age when the conventions were not as rigid as now.

It was, he thought, adjusting his gold-rimmed pince-nez on his ridiculous little turned-up nose, pleasant to be back in the good old “B.M.” once again. He breathed in the somewhat viscous air with real joy, and made his way to the central tables or desks (he could never quite make up his mind which word was most appropriate) where the catalogues were arranged, and hunted for some of the books he wanted to read for his note-taking purposes. Then, having placed his bowler hat and umbrella on a table to keep his place, he filled out some forms, made his way back to the place which he had reserved, and waited in as good patience as he could command for the books to arrive. (It is, one would like to point out, one of the few drawbacks to working in the British Museum that all the books one wishes to use are always so far away that the willing assistants take a matter of half an hour or so to procure them.)

Henry did not really mind the wait. He had a little game which he used to amuse himself by playing in idle moments. What Sarah, his spinster sister, would have said had she known of this little propensity of his, it is not easy to imagine. But she did not know—so what matter? This little pastime of Henry's was what he was pleased to call the “Sherlock Holmes” game. He would look earnestly at someone who was sitting opposite him in a bus or train, and would try to decide what that person's occupation in life was likely to be. He had not the satisfaction of knowing if his diagnosis was ever correct, but he had the mental joy of a secret occupation.

The British Museum Reading Room was an ideal place for such an occupation, as its inhabitants were so pleasantly variegated. Henry adjusted his pince-nez again, anticipating some sport. That tough-looking specimen over there, now. What could he be? “Confidence-man,” Henry murmured to himself, unconsciously libelling a University Professor, who was the world's greatest expert on lepidoptera.

The grey-haired, elderly negro sitting next to him was not a suitable subject for Henry's little game, as it did not need the brains of a Sherlock Holmes to deduce his profession from his clerical collar.

On the next chair, however, sitting with his head lolling back in an attitude of complete abandonment, was a specimen of the most remarkable interest. (Henry always thought of the subject of his perverted detective genius as a “specimen.”) This man had flaming red hair of the colour known to rude little schoolboys as “carroty.” He wore a pair of enormous horn-rimmed spectacles, and his chin, though technically clean shaven, had not been touched by a razor for several days. Yet his clothes, though stained with egg and with the remnants of other meals, were well cut, and had obviously been purchased from a good tailor in the West End of London. And as he lay back, his enormous cavern of a mouth half open, Henry caught a glimpse of gold teeth. Obviously a man of some money, then, though equally obviously caring but little of his appearance. His collar was dirty and his tie askew—so terrifyingly askew that Henry thought it the first time he had ever seen a tie literally worn under the ear.

And then, in the sacred precincts of the British Museum Reading Room, a strange sound smote Henry's ear. What could it be? Surely it couldn't be…surely it couldn't be…Yes; it was a veritable snore! It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a snore of the most gargantuan proportions, and it was being emitted by the large red-haired gentleman on whose precise position in society Henry had just been speculating.

Henry had summed him up as a
—probably a millionaire with a bee in his bonnet, perhaps writing a book to prove that Queen Victoria had written Shakespeare's plays, or something equally crazy. It seemed impossible to connect such an uncouth individual with any sort of interest in abstract knowledge of something like a rational kind.

And now this snore. What could be the meaning of it? Henry was never one to accept the obvious explanation, and he could not believe that what he found to be the exciting atmosphere of the Reading Room could possibly bore anyone so much as to send him to sleep. No. There must be some other, some less obvious explanation.

Suddenly Henry sat bolt upright in his chair. He had always been an assiduous reader of detective stories, and now he thought that he had hit upon the explanation of the snores, which were still ascending in a mighty crescendo, in spite of the titters and scowls with which they were being greeted.

This would never do. Perhaps the man had been drugged by a gang of crooks. Perhaps they were even now robbing his house, knowing that they had rendered him helpless for a period of hours. Perhaps they were kidnapping his beautiful daughter, with a view to holding her to ransom. Perhaps…(It is possibly unnecessary to add that Henry's detective-story reading was usually to be found in the more bloodthirsty shelves of the local lending library.)

Henry, although he was small, and although his pince-nez, his bowler hat, his umbrella, his blue serge suit, and his spats might suggest timid respectability, was no coward. While the rest of the inhabitants of the Reading Room sat around and either smiled or frowned at the snores, according as the work on which they were engaged was interesting or the reverse, Henry made up his mind that something must be done about this man. After all, he might be a lunatic with some crazy hair-brained scheme in his mind, but it would doubtless embarrass him considerably if he were found in such a position, a centre of mingled wrath and amusement in the world's most famous library.

Rising to his feet slowly, Henry made his way over to the man. The snores had subsided now. They must have lasted some two or three minutes, almost without ceasing, and now the man was merely breathing heavily, and even that seemed to die down as Henry approached him. However, his eyes were still tightly closed and his mouth was wide open.

Henry grasped the man's shoulder firmly. “Look here, old man, this won't do,” he said with forced affability.

There was no response. The man was still as a rock. Not a movement could Henry see in his face. It was all very mystifying, very curious. Henry could not understand it at all. He was completely puzzled by it.

Mastering his repugnance, he grasped the man's shoulder even more firmly and gave him a brisk shake. “Wake up!” he said, quite loudly.

Slowly, like a water-logged boat sinking under the waves, the man's head rolled round on his shoulders. He lolled forward, his head on the table, and then, his knees sagging and giving way beneath him, he slipped under the table on to the floor.

Henry rapidly knelt beside him, and grasped his wrist. Then he looked around in amazement. The whole room swam before his eyes, because the man who had been snoring so stertorously a few minutes before was now so very quiet, so very still. There was no movement anywhere in his great frame. There was no trace of a pulse. The man was dead!

BOOK: Murder in the Museum, A British Library Crime Classic
2.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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