Wednesday, June 22, 2016

John Rowland’s “Calamity in Kent”

Jimmy London is a reporter, recuperating after surgery in the Kentish seaside town of Broadgate (likely an amalgam of the real Ramsgate and Broadstairs). He’s out walking one morning when he sees the operator of the nearby hillside cable car lift staggering in shock. The operator has discovered a body in one of the cars, stabbed in the back. The car was locked. The lift gate was locked. There is no way the body and murder could be there.

But it is. And what we have is a twist on the “locked-room mystery.”

First published in 1950, Calamity in Kent by John Rowland (1907-1984) had been reissued by the British Library Crime Classics series. While the series has republished a few 19th century musyeries, most of its titles come from the Golden Age of the murder mystery – the 1920s and 1930s. While this one could was published just past that era, when the noir mystery was rei9gning supreme, this one could easily have been published in the 1930s. In fact, nothing in the story suggests otherwise.

Rowland has an interesting history. With a B.S. degree in chemistry (“with honours”), he started his working career as a chemistry teacher. He shifted into journalism, specializing in religious and philosophical publications. From there he moved into mystery and true crimes stories. Between 1935 and 1950, he wrote some 21 mystery novels and true crime works. And then, in the early 1950s, he shifted gears once again and became a Unitarian minister.

The 1950 cover
The British Library has republished two of his titles, Calamity in Kent and Murder in the Museum. This one is not what one would call a heavy-duty mystery story. It’s told primarily from the perspective of the reporter and not the police detective who’s the real investigator, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard. And the reporter is somehow able to talk his way into interviews with witnesses that would not ordinarily be very likely.

As Jimmy London and Inspector Shelley investigate, they’re confronted almost immediately with an identical murder. Slowly they piece together a story that’s far broader than simple murder.

Like the others in the British Library series, the story is introduced by British mystery writer Martin Edwards, and he does a fine job setting the context for Rowland and the novel.

Despite being a murder mystery, Calamity in Kent is light reading – an ideal book for the beach and the pool this summer.

Photograph of Broadstairs in Kent, England, via Wikipedia.


Tarissa said...

Sounds like a unique murder mystery. Might keep it in mind to read myself!

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