“First of all I did what I always do when I come into a strange room-I looked at the bookshelf.”
Journalist Jimmy London is recuperating from an unnamed illness on the Kent coast at the small seaside town, Broadgate. Jimmy, out walking before the rest of the guests at the boarding house are awake, finds the operator of the cliff lift stumbling, in the state of imminent collapse after finding a dead body inside the locked cliff lift. While the operator, a rather peculiar, dense character named Aloysius Bender, goes off to get the police, Jimmy guards the body.
Jimmy, who was forced to resign from his last job for health reasons, seizes the opportunity to sell a story as a freelancer. Alone with the body, he rifles the clothes of the dead man and grabs a notebook. This behaviour is the first sign that we are dealing with a delightfully unscrupulous character who justifies himself throughout the story as he skirts between his self-interest and remaining in the good graces of Inspector Shelley from Scotland Yard.
John Rowland’s 1950 novel Calamity in Kent is an interesting entry in the British Library Crime Classics. Inspector Shelley and Jimmy are old friends, and these two characters work their own parallel , co-operative investigations with Shelley acknowledging that people will talk to a newspaperman whereas a uniform will often result in a witness clamming up. And this indeed proves to be the case. Jimmy digs into the past of the dead man and befriends a couple of young people who are mixed up in the case by association.
With many of the books in this series, following the investigation with a main character brings the reader in as a sideline detective. Take Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel, for example–whenever Inspector Arnold and his friend, amateur sleuth Merrion meet, they exchange theories and alternate scenarios, and the reader inevitably enters into the detective dynamic and the puzzle of the crime. In Rowland’s novel, the same dynamic doesn’t exist. Inspector Shelley allows Jimmy to collaborate but the reporter is definitely not an equal–Shelley doesn’t divulge exactly how and where he gets his information.
In Calamity in Kent, the emphasis is on the murder victim’s business dealings in Broadgate, and while the number of murder suspects are limited, these aspects, along with the fact that the body is found inside a locked lift, are both subsumed and sidelined by the victim’s possible black market connections. So the emphasis is not so much who-dunnit as why, with Inspector Shelley obviously rationalising that if he can solve the puzzle of the victim’s criminal life, all other parts of the puzzle will fall into place. If you are the sort of reader who wants to solve the puzzle–in this case, how was the victim inside a locked cliff lift, then you may feel a little disappointed that you can’t run with this aspect of the tale. If, however, you are content to be inside Jimmy’s head, then you will sit back, relax and enjoy his story.
Jimmy balances his desire to deliver a salacious story to the paper that’s hired him against his promise to Shelley that he’ll keep some aspects of the case confidential. When presented with moral dilemmas regarding his responsibility towards the case, Jimmy’s self-interest rules, but there’s always a little moral quibbling:
I know that this was something in every way reprehensible. I ought not to have tried to keep anything to myself. But I salved my conscience by telling myself that Shelley had not told me by any means all that he knew.
It’s clear that Jimmy is first and foremost a newspaper man. He has a nose for character and behaviour and acts rather -un-detective-like upon occasion. For example, he decides that a couple of suspects are innocent and treats them accordingly. His view of the crime is always light-hearted, and he’s content to be Shelley’s bloodhound as he knows this will, ultimately, profit his career.
“I suppose that even the discovery of corpses is something which may become more or less normal if it happens often enough.”