Calamity in Kent

Written by John Rowland

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Calamity in Kent
The British Library Publishing Division
RRP: £8.99
Released: October 4 2016

The British Library Crime Classics continue to issue works previously difficult to obtain, and am glad to say that the list has doubled the number of John Rowland books in my library (MURDER IN THE MUSEUM is also available as a BLCC paperback).

CALAMITY IN KENT should perhaps be ‘Calamities in Kent’ as it involves two apparently impossible murders, another stabbing, crime reporter Jimmy London’s risking his life in a gangster’s hideaway, and the threat that a young couple will never consummate their love as one is being set up on a murder rap. The year is 1950 and that means someone convicted of murder might be hanged. The Second World War has been over for five years but there are still shortages: in fact, Jimmy London, who is in the seaside town of Broadgate recuperating from a major operation, never eats out when he misses his hotel breakfast as if he cannot risk losing his rations. Mind you, given that Jimmy tends to discover bodies leaking blood from the knife wounds in their back while on his pre-breakfast strolls he may simply have lost his appetite. Those bodies are all in the car of the cliff railway, which has been locked and left stationary overnight.

As Martin Edwards says in his introduction Jimmy is an odd mix of the naive and the unscrupulous. Jimmy will have learned to be unscrupulous as he worked in Fleet Street before his operation; that is also where he met Rowland’s series detective, Inspector Shelley, who decides to use Jimmy to investigate the background of a growing number of suspects. The variety of suspects which grows out of a notebook that Jimmy has lifted from a corpse’s pocket (there is the ‘unscrupulous’ part) encourages one to read on. It is here that John Rowland is able to use another aspect of the post-War economy: Retail Price Maintenance, which grew out of the war-time ‘cost-plus’ and ‘controlled prices’. Given the shortages and that manufacturers were able to specify the prices at which their goods were to be sold, individuals who needed anything from car parts to home improvements had to risk dealing with the black market and to offer to pay way over fixed prices in order to obtain whatever would keep them moving. Someone will eventually realise that it is not just rarity that makes people prepared to go to the edge and pay over the top prices – that is the last third of the book, where it tends to become facile, inadequate and clichéd, but until then it gets better and better.

Andrew Marr has started his new TV series on popular fiction by discussing detective stories, and although the early opinion seems to be that he has little idea of what he is talking about, he has said that one can learn about everyday life from these books. If he wants evidence he can hold up CALAMITY IN KENT where grotesque murders arise from everyday problems.

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