Murder at the British Museum: Jim Eldridge

★★

I’m intrigued by stories set in museums, mainly because I love seeing what authors think curators do with their time (hint: less of the jungles, secret societies and revivified mummies; more ferreting around in dusty boxes. Or maybe that’s just me). This particular book caught my eye because it’s set in my own stomping ground. How could I resist a murder mystery in the hallowed halls of the British Museum? In retrospect, I probably should have done: partly for the usual reason (indignation at a lack of familiarity with what the building actually looks like), and partly because I didn’t think it was particularly well-written. But there’s still a measure of interest to be found in this tale of dastardly doings in Bloomsbury, and in the enterprising duo who are called in to help solve the crime and – more importantly – salvage the Museum’s reputation.

When I requested this book from Netgalley, it wasn’t made clear that it was the second book in a series, and so I spent most of the novel feeling like a latecomer to a conversation. It felt as though everyone already knew each other and was trying to explain to me, rather laboriously, how they’d met. It is, in fact, the second of three books: the first is called Murder at the Fitzwilliam and the third, with the kind of grim inevitability that you can see thundering towards you from a distance, is Murder at the Ashmolean. I suggest that the UK police force set up immediate cordons at the Pitt Rivers, the Horniman and the Geffrye Museums, because clearly nowhere is safe. On the other hand, you could just decide not to keep yourself out of danger by not setting foot in a museum for the rest of your life. The choice is yours.

Professor Lance Pickering is dead. To be precise, he was brutally stabbed by a mysterious assailant in the men’s toilets of the British Museum, just before he was supposed to give a lecture on the new exhibition The Age of King Arthur. The incident has been reported to the Metropolitan Police, but Sir Jasper Stone, director of the Museum, has decided to hedge his bets. He also approaches Daniel Wilson, a private investigator and former policeman, who has a track record of solving potentially embarrassing crimes with discretion and honour. Daniel and his partner, Egyptologist Abigail Fenton, are more than willing to help, but it is a baffling case. Why on earth would a respected academic be murdered? Was it a case of mistaken identity? A scholarly dispute? (Pickering has recently published a book on Ambrosius Aurelianus, one of the theoretical prototypes for the Arthur legend; but surely academic disagreement doesn’t lead to murder?) Perhaps he was just the innocent victim of an act aimed not at him but the Museum itself? Who would hold a grudge against a mild-mannered professor?

Of course, it soon transpires that Lance Pickering was slightly more complicated than anyone had anticipated – or been willing to say. As Daniel and Abigail plunge deeper into their investigations – with the tacit encouragement of Daniel’s former Met colleague, Inspector John Fisher, and the profound loathing of Superintendent Armstong – a whole tangle of new possibilities make themselves known. Was Pickering really the beloved and upstanding husband that his wife claims? If so, why does she seem to have a suspiciously close male friend? Was he the selfless paragon promoted by his publisher? Could it really be true that a vindictive secret society was after Pickering? Or could the whole thing be the result of political action by Irish terrorists? Daniel and Abigail must find the truth – and quickly, because presently it becomes clear that Pickering won’t be the only casualty of this peculiar case. To make matters worse, gutter journalist Ned Carson is on their trail and will stop at nothing to get his scoop – even if it’s gossip about the precise nature of our detectives’ partnership.

On one level this is a fun period detective story, but I couldn’t help feeling that it would have benefitted from a firmer editorial hand. Many of the issues that I had with the novel were stylistic and could have been ironed out, especially given that this is not a self-published novel but one published through an established house. My main problem was that the dialogue very rarely felt natural. Much of it was designed to give us information, and it felt dull and didactic. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term ‘As You Know, Bob’, but it’s used to describe conversations in which people explain things to one another that really shouldn’t have to be explained because they both know it. It’s done for the benefit of the reader, and it always jars. Here, unfortunately, there is quite a lot of ‘As You Know, Bob’, and little of it is helpful to the plot. Take, for example, an episode in which Daniel and Abigail head to East London. Abigail observes, “Looking at the names of the stations we’ll be going through, many of them seem to be associated with docks”‘. This gives Daniel a chance to explain to her that they’re passing into the Docklands and to give her some history about the Isle of Dogs. This leads into an explanation about Millwall, the history of local London football teams, and the dangers of sporting rivalry. These may well be the kinds of random conversations that we have in real life, but they’re usually cut out of fiction because they aren’t immediately relevant (or interesting). You don’t get people in Agatha Christie novels having long conversations about whether there’s enough milk. Real life does not a gripping novel make.

Unfortunately, that’s just one example of a rather pernicious kind of conversation that crops up throughout the book. I’m afraid the next three paragraphs are a bit of a rant, so do feel free to skip them. Now, I haven’t read Murder at the Fitzwilliam, the first book in this series, but the premise here is that Abigail has been working out in Egypt for some years and so needs to have quite a lot of very obvious things explained to her. It’s all done so that the reader understands, but the result is a rather irritating and repetitive conversation in which a man explains things to a supposedly highly intelligent woman. Usually the one doing to the explaining is Daniel. If I were Abigail – a graduate of Girton, with extensive archaeological experience under my belt and, one presumes, a good deal of common sense – I would have lost patience with such mansplaining long ago, and belted him round the head with my handbag. But maybe that’s just me.

The frustrating thing is that Abigail is obviously meant to be a modern female protagonist who is the equal of her male counterparts. As the book opens, people at the British Museum are falling over themselves to tell her how much they admire her. The archaeological world is a small one, they tell her. Word spreads about good people. Great! Merit is receiving its just rewards. But unfortunately not everyone seems quite so well-informed about Abigail’s activities. Or, more accurately, their awareness of her work is… patchy. Take, for example, the scene where she goes to visit her old friend Charles Winter. He’s delighted to see her, of course, and greets her with: ‘So, is it your Roman work that’s brought you here …?’ Then, less than TWO pages later, he’s obviously had a brain bypass: he gets caught up in explaining the Druids to her, only for her to say something about Boudica; after which he gives an ‘apologetic smile‘ and says, ‘I keep forgetting that Roman Britain was another of your areas of scholarship‘. Good God, Charles, you haven’t forgotten, because you mentioned it two pages ago. But maybe the author forgot that you hadn’t forgotten, because he needed you to dump some information for the benefit of the reader, i.e. mansplain.

Poor Abigail. When does she get to explain anything to the men? She’s meant to be smart and widely admired, but unfortunately none of the men have got the memo. The one time she defies Daniel’s warnings to be careful, she gets herself in a sticky situation (God forbid women taking the initiative and trying to do Things That Men Should Do!). She’s used for two main functions: first, to show how terribly modern Daniel is, because he’s domestic while she’s charmingly backward in that area; and second, as a straw (wo)man for men to explain things to. Things that any halfway intelligent woman, even one who has just spent years in Egypt, probably already knows. It just narked me. Over the course of my career I have (relatively rarely, thank God) had things explained to me by men, including, in a classic example, something on which I had just published an article, and I feel angry on Abigail’s behalf that she doesn’t have a better plot.

The thing that baffles me is that Jim Eldridge is not some rookie novelist just finding his feet. According to his biography at the back of the book, he’s written more than a hundred books and sold more than three million copies, so he is, by any definition of the term, an expert. With that in mind, it’s rather frustrating that plot and characterisation aren’t better served here. And it isn’t just Abigail, poor martyr that she is. The plot flounders around and the grand denouement demands us to believe a lot of rather implausible things about people secreting weapons on their person in public places and so forth… It just didn’t hold together. I could never lose sight of the fact that I was reading a book, because the characters never felt like real people, no matter how much I wanted them to. And I did; I really did. But it just didn’t quite work.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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