Henry Fairhurst is sitting in the famous domed reading room of the British Museum, waiting on a librarian to bring him some 17th century books on a French courtesan, He’s there as a favor for a journalist friend, helping with a story the friend is writing. As he waits, he engages in the favorite pastime of watching other museum visitors and imagining stories about them.
The red-haired man sitting nearby is a good example. Somewhat disheveled in appearance, his head his lolling back, and he begins to make sounds like snoring. Henry makes his way to the man to awaken him. And watches as the man slips to the floor, dead.
And not just dead from natural causes. Dead as in poisoned, as it turns out.
The dead man is Julius Arnell, a professor of English literature who had specialized in Elizabethan drama. Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard arrives to investigate, and soon Henry finds himself (with more than a little enthusiasm) helping the inspector with his inquiries.
Murder in the Museum by John Rowland was first published in 1938, during the Golden Age of the murder mystery (and long before the library and the reading room of the British Museum were separated into the British Library). Like Rowland’s Calamity in Kent, reviewed here a few weeks ago, it’s not so much an “Inspector Shelley investigates” story as it is an “Inspector Shelley investigates assisted by a knowledgeable amateur” story. It’s been reissued as one of the British Library’s Crime Classics series.
Henry and Shelley soon find themselves in more than one murder – two other Elizabethan drama academics have died; a mysterious will arrives in the mail; impoverished relatives have their own possible motives; and organized crime may be involved. Rowland threads a number of possible murderers through the story, keeping the reader guessing and occasionally wondering where the story is going.
Rowland (1907-1984) began his working career as a chemistry teacher, gradually moved to journalism and writing, penning some 21mystery novels and true crime stories before becoming a Unitarian minister in the 1950s. As mystery novelist Martin Edwards points out in the introduction to Murder in the Museum, Rowland was writing in the culture of his time, and reflects typical attitudes toward ethnic groups like Jews. The British Library, after some discussion, decided to retain the relatively few references of this type in this story, because Rowland did reflect the attitudes (and prejudices) of his time.
Murder in the Museum isn’t one of the heavyweight mystery classics, but it is a good example of many of the mysteries of the 1920s-1940s.
Top illustration: The old Reading Room of the British Museum.