Calamity in Kent by John Rowland – a British Library Crime Classic

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This book in the British Library Crime Classics series seemed to appear without a lot of fuss, which is a shame as I enjoyed it more than some other books which feature slow starts or a predictable answer. This opens very strongly, and there are elements of locked room mystery and thriller which kept my interest going until the very end.

This is a slightly unusual murder mystery as it features a freelance newspaper reporter rather than a detective. Told by Jimmy London, it offers a different perspective on the solving of murder as he is tacitly supported by Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard rather than the local police who are plodding rather than involved. This means the reader feels engaged as Jimmy follows clues and talks to people on an unofficial basis, rather than having sudden moments of detective inspiration. It means that he is frequently feels out of his depth, and his motives for pursuing the solution are not totally altruistic as he hopes for a scoop. He does become involved with some of the suspects as this unusual mystery unfolds.

The intriguing feature of this book is that the first corpse is found not in a locked room, but a locked carriage of a cliff railway. Jimmy encounters the bewildered operator who discovers the body, stabbed in the back. From the realisation that this story could revive his career, Jimmy proceeds to discover the clues that will assist not only his detective friend, but will maintain public interest in the developing case. Published in 1950, this picture of post war Britain with shortages of basic items and coming to terms with loss is an interesting read. The female characters do not drive much of the action, but are significant in the plot. I think that this book becomes a thriller towards the end, but still manages to tidy up the loose ends and answer the questions about who did what, and why. It is not always completely satisfactory in answering the questions of motivation, but the narrator is not a professional detective and proceeds as a “civilian”, which helps the reader feel as if they understand why he chooses his actions.

This is not a genre defining book, but fulfils a definite position in a series of interesting mysteries. According to Martin Edwards’ introduction Rowland was interested in true life crime, and this shows the appetite for such newspaper articles. I enjoyed reading this book, and think it a worthy addition to this series of mysteries.

My next few posts turn away from crime (!) and mystery as I look at two books that I have recently read and enjoyed. “The Durrells of Cofu” by Michael Haag is a real life account of the Durrell family’s real time on Corfu, behind the jolly “My Family and other Animals” and the tv series. “Jane Austen at Home” is a book by Lucy Worsley which made not only the basis for a tv programme  but a piece in Private Eye. Two (or more!) writers and their real stories; not as neat as their novels would suggest. Watch this space!

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