Another seaside read for late summer this week, Calamity in Kent, one of the British Library Crime Classics. This has the bonus of an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards and another breezy railway poster cover. The novel was published in 1950 and this is the first reprint. It is set in the fictional resort of Broadgate, a very lightly disguised Broadstairs. We can be sure of this as Rowland describes the topography in detail and mentions the real area of North Foreland, just beyond the town.
Broadstairs is a charming place, full of historic interest, with two claims to literary fame. Dickens loved the town, visiting many times and writing much of David Copperfield there. John Buchan and his family were staying at Broadstairs in the summer of 1914. His wife’s cousin was renting a cliff-top property which had a flight of steps leading to a private beach. They and the town are the inspiration for the end of The Thirty-nine Steps.
Calamity In Kent is narrated by Jimmy London, a journalist recuperating at Broadgate after an operation. His illness is unspecified but we know he’s been staying there in a boarding-house for some weeks. Taking a turn on the prom before breakfast, he sees a man who’s had a bad shock. He’s the operator of the cliff railway who has just discovered a body in the locked cliff railway carriage.
Jimmy’s newshound instincts make him excited to be first on the spot. There follows an amusing interlude where he views the body and manages to despatch the lift attendant to fetch the police. Left alone, he not only frisks the corpse, finding out his identity but finds a notebook – uncomfortably near splatters of blood – and cheerfully pockets it.
Jimmy immediately phones a Fleet Street editor and gets himself appointed special correspondent for the murder story. He can scent his way back to replenishing his funds and landing a staff job.
In my time I had been in on a few scoops. This, however, was the first time that I had ever had the inside story of a murder handed to me on a plate. And I knew that a recent increase in the newsprint ration meant that the papers would give a bit more space to the case, if it was truly sensational, than they had been able to do in years.
Then Jimmy meets up with an old friend, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, who happens to be staying with the Chief Constable. Not having much faith in the unimaginative local man, Inspector Beech, Shelley suggests that he and Jimmy London pool their knowledge.
I think it would be as well if we agreed to share the work of investigation. You see, there are people who might talk to a journalist, who, on the other hand, would not so readily talk to a policeman. Queer, no accounting for personal taste.
I’ve noticed quite a lot of reviews with readers complaining about this unrealistic device but I’m happy to suspend belief if I’m enjoying myself. (We never miss Midsomer Murders or Father Brown.) It is rather convenient how Jimmy finds one lead after another and everyone readily tells him useful information – instead of where to get off. Even so, I did enjoy Calamity in Kent very much.
Jimmy London is an engaging protagonist. Optimistic, resourceful, unscrupulous, he’s very believable and you can’t help taking to him. Inspector Shelley is likable too and is John Rowland’s usual detective. The narrative gains added interest in being from Jimmy’s point of view. The plot is great fun and builds to an exciting denouement. This has a sense of real danger and comes close to the feel of a fifties thriller or black and white film.
Calamity in Kent has an interesting transitional feel in the world of 20th century crime fiction. The setting is familiar to that of a Golden Age detective novel but contains many post-war references. A character has a limp from a war wound. We hear about newsprint rationing, the difficulty of obtaining motor spares, identity cards, nationalisation of the coal mines and the black market. Britain’s seaside resorts have resumed their heyday – although they’ve only a decade or so before holiday-makers will fly away to the sun. But things aren’t quite the same. The barbed wire’s been taken off the beach, the Home Guard disbanded and the blown-up part of the pier repaired. There’s another list of names on the war memorial. Even in a real life Walmington-on-sea, times are changing.
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