Crime On the Coast

"Oh, ah. Adventure... there's plenty of 'em chum."
- The Fat Man (John Dickson Carr's "The Fun Fair," collected in The Detection Club's Crime on the Coast & No Flowers by Request, 1953-54)

John Rowland hailed from Cornwell, England and over the course of his lifetime, he had worked as a publisher, journalist, civil servant and even as a Unitarian minister, but what is of interest to this blog was his prolific spell as a mystery novelist – which lasted from 1935 until 1950.

Rowland was one of those minor-league mystery writers who passed into obscurity at the dawn of the second half of the previous century. Thankfully, the Poisoned Pen Press has blown the dust from two of his novels, Murder in the Museum (1938) and Calamity in Kent (1950), which has since been reissued under their banner of British Library Crime Classics. All of them prefaced with an introduction by a familiar genre historian and crime novelist, Martin Edwards, who can be found blogging at "Do You Write Under Your Own Name?"

I picked Calamity in Kent as my formal introduction to the work of Rowland for an obvious and predictable reason: the book was catalogued by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991), but one would be wise to heed Edwards' cautious warning not to expect "the devilish ingenuity that one associates with, say, the Americans John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson" – because the locked room conundrum is very simplistic and only a minor part of the plot. However, I stubbornly refused to lower my expectations, which I based on a hunch. But more on that later.

Despite my refusal to take a hint, I enjoyed reading Calamity in Kent and took a particular liking to the narrator, Jimmy London, who is a newspaper reporter, but the first chapter of the book finds him recuperating from an operation. The place where he tries to regain his strength is a small, Kentish seaside town, called Broadgate, planted on the coast of South East England.

One morning, while taking an early stroll, London notices a man who acts "queerly" and "seemed to be drunk, or stunned, or shocked," which rekindled his journalistic instincts, but even London was surprise to learn the cause of the mans distress.

The name of the troubled-looking man turns out to be Aloysius Bender and he's the operator of the cliff railway, known locally as the Broadgate Lift, but when he wanted to open up for business that morning he found a dead man inside one of the locked carriages – a hilt of a nasty-looking knife sticking out of his back. London seizes on the opportunity presented to him and takes the first step in getting his name back into circulation by searching the scene of the crime, which he knew was, strictly speaking, not entirely legal. But he had to put his "own future as a journalist first." And if he to take a pocketbook he had fished from the victim's clothes, so be it.

Rowland has an airy, light-hearted sense of realism about the conventions of the detective story and the actions of his characters. As I said, London pounced on the chance to return to the pack of newshounds roaming Fleet Street and contacted the newspaper who seemed most likely to pay him "a sensible fee as a special correspondent," which he got with The Daily Wire and dictated "a cold-blooded piece of butchery" over the phone for the his first installment – excusing the adjectives that there was "the added spice of a genuine mystery story behind it."

However, London’s friend and insight man at Scotland Yard, Detective-Inspector Shelley, remarks how London seems to make "a habit of being in on the beginnings of murders" and advises him not to find "too many bodies," because they have suspicious minds at the force. On the other hand, Shelley is aware that the mighty machine of Scotland Yard is a slow-moving one, which prevents individual cogs to tail a hunch like a lone wolf. So he understands the potential use of a free agent and is not averse to pooling his information with London.

It's a collaboration that slowly exposes the criminal network surrounding the victim, John Tilsley, who is suspected of black market racketeering, but that's pretty much all I have to say about the plot. I loved the narrative voice of London, the setting and the characters that were found there, but the plot turned out to be as light-weight as the writing and began to move towards thriller territory after the halfway mark – which naturally came at the cost of it not being a (pure) detective story.

I was actually reminded of such smart-alecky type of mystery/thrillers like Maurice B. Dix's Murder at Grassmere Abbey (1934).

Finally, I have to comment on the locked room angle, which was very minor part of the story. London and Shelley mentioned throughout the book about the impossibility of how a body was able to end up in a sealed carriage without the locks being tempered with, but the explanation given in the final pages of the book were extremely underwhelming.

I had been warned in the introduction about this, but the lock in question was described as "a massive padlock of an old-fashioned type" that "tied the two gates together," which convinced me I had found either the originator or an early example of a certain locked room trick I had only come across in a handful of post-GAD stories. But I was wrong. It turned it was only a nominally locked room mystery.

I've the sinking feeling I gutted Calamity in Kent with this lackluster review, but I genuinely liked the book and it says something for Rowland he was able to hold the attention of a reader like me – after moving away from a locked room mystery to a smart-aleck thriller. Well, guess I'll be dipping into an actual impossible crime story for my next read.

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