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Murder In The Borough Library

Murder In The Borough Library - John Austwick John Austwick, a pseudonym for Austin Lee (1904-1965), served as a Royal Navy chaplain in the 1930s and later became a rector and vicar in rural England. Reverend Lee was a "character" for his times, a socialist and a pacifist who once said he was the "despair of Bishops," and in every Church job he held, he soon found himself in the newspapers complaining about the paltry stipend, lack of challenges, and dictatorial nature of the church hierarchy. It's hardly surprising that he was relieved of his Navy chaplaincy. In-between church jobs, he worked as a bartender, journalist, chef, and writer of guide books for the Norwegian railways.

The author's first and primary series character (under his given name, Austin Lee) was schoolmistress turned detective Miss Hogg, who starred in nine novels, basically one a year from 1955 to 1963. Simultaneously with those books, he created a series featuring Detective Inspector Parker, with five installments including three that seem to indicate an obsession with libraries: "Murder in the Borough Library" (1959), "The County Library Murders" (1962) and "The Mobile Library Murders" (1964). Why? Perhaps it was because he wrote many of his novels in the Keighley Reference Library.

The book "Murder in the Borough Library" finds DI Parker (who is known to everyone in the division as "Nosey") with a puzzling case on his hands, an old tramp murdered in the public library of Airebridge, a small Yorkshire mill town. There doesn't seem to any reason to murder harmless old Joseph Hackett, but as Parker digs deeper, he realizes Hackett was anything but harmless. With a past as an unfrocked priest, blackmailer, pornographer and drunkard, the victim has crossed paths with many people who might want him dead.

It is tempting to wonder how much of this novel is autobiographical. One minister in the book says, "A clergyman is usually an educated man, and yet he may be placed in a position where there is no one with whom he can carry on an intellectual conversation, with whom he can discuss books, or the happenings of the world around him. This may be all very well for a married man, but it is wearying for a bachelor." One of the parishioners also remarks that the current reverend isn't very well liked. "It's always the same, they never like the one they've got, it's always the one before or the one before that."

As to Austwick's writing, it's fairly straightforward, with the best bits saved for the descriptions of settings. This is what makes it an entertaining book, as a historical look back to barographs used to measure the weather, lighting from an electrolier, a Benares brassware tabletop and a fire brigade using arc lamps. There's also humor, as when DI Parker sees a painting of an elderly lady with a forbidding expression, "dressed in a manner that reminded the inspector of his grandmother, an old matriarch who had played hell with the whole family until she had been mercifully carried off in a minor influenza epidemic in the thirties."

As to the plot, it would be a no-starter with today's sensibilities, but in 1950s rural England, as Robert Barnard says in his Foreword to the Black Dagger edition, "Then, public men acted within a framework of honesty and decency which they outraged at their peril." And Barnard draws a parallel to a snippet from George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, "We owe much to them for keeping up the sense of respectability, which was the only religion possible to the mass of English people."