Murder In The Museum by John Rowland

In the reading room of the British Museum, Henry Fairhurst is playing Sherlock Holmes, hypothesising about his fellow readers. Only one of them, Julius Arnell, has a fairly distinctive quality about him – he’s just died, poisoned by a sugared almond. But who would want to kill a retired professor of Elizabethan literature?

Well, technically, who would kill two such academics in the same place, as it seems a colleague of Arnell had previously suffered the same fate. As Inspector Shelley and Henry begin their own investigations into the murders, a third death, also at the library makes things even more confusing, making our heroes combine forces to hunt down a dangerous killer.

I’m going to have to be a little briefer than usual, as I’ve been on holiday and have got a fair few books to review – I might have to combine some into mini-reviews, let’s see.

Anyway, the open half of the book is very strong. The two sleuths are good contrasts, and Henry’s gradual transfer from hen-pecked (by his sister) to heroic is fun to read. The mystery develops strongly, with intriguing developments and interesting suspects.

And then, clearly Rowland – a writer of 21 Inspector Shelley mysteries from 1935 to 1950 – got his copy of “How To Write Like Agatha Christie” mixed up with his copy of “How To Write Like John Buchan” and the book rapidly plunges downhill. The mystery element is thrown completely out of the window to be replaced by a rather idiotic master-plan by a rather idiotic villain. A massive coincidence is needed to track the villain down, and while the development of Henry is still fun, at this point, not much else is.

So, a very good start, but a fairly poor ending. Not really sure why this was chosen by the British Library to reprint – I really hope it’s not the best of Rowland’s output – it’s Worth A Look but don’t get your hopes up. Oh, and ignore the blurb, it’s rather spoiler-tastic.

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8 comments

  1. As soon as I saw your opening para, I was reminded of Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, which has similar BM Reading Room scenes — except in this case the readers include George Gissing and Karl Marx! I can’t remember offhand if any of the murders actually occur there. And I know I’ve read another BM Reading Room-related detective novel, decades ago; if you’d asked me I’d have said it was called Death in the Reading Room but, as a swift google reveals no trace of such a novel, I’m wondering if in fact it was Rowland’s novel I read.

    ‘Course, I’m something of a John Buchan fan, so it’s possible I’d like the second half as much as or even more than the first!

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    • Well, when I say Buchan, I just mean it turns into a kidnap-escape-chase style thriller. More my guess of what Buchan is like – I’ve only read The 39 Steps and that was a while ago

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  2. This may have been my first BLCC and I have a soft spot for it though I don’t deny the problems you point to. The thing that I found most interesting was the way something was masked by something else which I felt was wonderfully simple and I don’t recall seeing that idea somewhere else (I am sure having said that there will be dozens of famous novels I either forgot or am not aware of).

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  3. I concur with your sentiments on this; fun, but inessential. My review goes into more detail defending the novel against accusations of perceived anti-Semitism than it does details of the plot. Which tells you all you need to know, really.

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  4. I read this mystery some time ago and as I recall your assessment is very accurate; perhaps the author put the manuscript down unfinished and then came back to it some years later to write the second part. However I am a huge John Buchan fan (try some of his other books beside THE THIRTY NINE STEPS) and love the books about Richard Hannay. Yes, they are a bit dated (very much of their time) and all, but they are good. For anyone who wants to try something else, find his sister’s books. Writing as O Douglas [so as not to be confused with her brother] Anna Buchan wrote some wonderful books about Scotland — fine stories of families and the country side. Very definitely not mysteries.

    I strongly recommend the BL selections but they do have some books that I don’t like/aren’t as engaging as some of the others. Still it is a fabulous series overall. Well chosen and edited as well as produced in a consistent format and reasonably priced. They have wonderful covers as well!

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