In spite of the fact that the subject is murder, John Rowland’s Murder in the Museum starts on a very light note. The book opens in the British Museum with the introverted bachelor, pince-nez-sporting, Henry Fairhurst, researching an assignment on an obscure 17th century courtesan. While the British Museum Reading Room is a highly respectable place, Rowland shows us its sinister side:
Beneath the high, gloomy dome, Henry Fairhurst looked around him. There was an air of deathly stillness in the place, and a silence broken only by the occasional rustle of pages and the subdued murmurs of a borrower discussing books with an official.
Someone has the audacity to sully the hallowed atmosphere of the British Museum by snoring. Henry, “an assiduous reader of detective stories,” and a self-confessed ‘people-watcher,’ decides to rouse the snoring man from his slumber, but as he shakes the snoring man, the stranger falls dead onto the floor.
Enter Inspector Shelley (who was also the detective in charge of the case in Calamity in Kent). Fairhurst is awed to be in the presence of the great Scotland Yard detective and he’s especially thrilled to be involved in the investigation. The British Museum snorer, as it turns out, was murdered with a cyanide laced sugar-almond, and the victim, the prominent Professor, Julius Arnell, “the world’s greatest authority on the minor Elizabethans,” has left a substantial amount of money to his only daughter, Violet. In the event of her death, the money is to pass to the professor’s nephew, Moses Moss. To complicate matters, the professor’s daughter is in love with a man her late father did not like.
At first, the book concentrates on the endearing character of Henry Fairhurst, a timid man who lives vicariously through crime books and gangster films, while in real life, he’s dominated by his spinster sister. As an amateur detective, Fairhurst makes an exciting link between the death of one Elizabethan scholar and another. With a fertile imagination, he imagines himself “as the principal witness for the crown in a case against one University Professor for the murder of another one.”
The novel reflects the attitudes of the times, so the character of Moses Moss is referred to as a Jew. There’s also a Jewish moneylender, and there’s a sentence that mentions that “he’s one of those unpleasant people whom the fascists are so fond of portraying as the typical Jew, Nothing of the sort really, of course, and to call him such is a libel on the Jewish race.”
There’s a lot here that seems tongue-in-cheek: the poisoned sugared almond, the bitter rivalry of Elizabethan scholars, and that makes Murder in the Museum a well-written romp of a crime story. While more than one person dies, there’s a dastardly villain (in the style of ‘The Perils of Pauline’) and also a few red herrings. The ending is marred by a coincidence that seems a bit too neatly contrived, but then it was a way to drag Fairhurst back into the story.
The rain was descending in sheets, and alone the lengthy road ahead of them the yellow glow of the street lamps stretched in a seemingly endless line into the distance. The paler colour of gas lamps took their place, and then the hideous sheen of the newer type of daytime lamps made their faces look ghastly as they peered at the road where it slipped away, an endless shiny ribbon ahead.