Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Some Literary Nights at the Museum

british museum

This week’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf (on North Manchester FM) was all about books set in museums – inspired by the book I’m currently reading (and more on that shortly). You can listen to the show on the player at the bottom of this post, but as promised here are the details of the books I talked about on the show. (As an aside, I am quite in love with museums – so much so, in fact, me and my husband got married in one. You can read about our special Night at the Museum in this post on our travel blog.)

Murder in the Museum by John Rowland (1938)

murder in the museum

This is the book I’m currently reading, and the inspiration for this week’s theme. Rowland’s novel is one of the British Library Crime Classics series. Way back in 2015, on the first ever episode of Hannah’s Bookshelf, I talked about Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon, which was the first of the series that I read. For my birthday this year, my parents-in-law bought me three more books in the series (how well they know me!): Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon, The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay and Murder in the Museum. My mother-in-law also picked up a secondhand copy of The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude recently, so I’m saving The Santa Klaus Murder and The Cornish Coast Murder for when we take our annual pre-Christmas trip to Cornwall in December.

Murder in the Museum begins in the reading room of the British Museum. As the book was written before the British Library Act 1972, the British Museum and the British Library are still the same entity and so ‘museum’ and ‘library’ are used interchangeably. The novel’s ‘affable chap’ and (very) amateur sleuth Henry Fairhurst is engaging in a little light people-watching, when he witnesses a man drop dead. The victim is Julius Arnell, a professor of Elizabethan drama. Inspector Shelley and Sergeant Cunningham arrive to investigate, but it’s not long before another murder occurs. Murder in the Museum is a pretty light example of Golden Age detective fiction, but it’s wonderfully evocative and enjoyable. There are some great descriptions of the museum reading room. I particularly like the depiction of the reading room at night, which I read on the show. (Murder in the Museum also includes the most wonderfully Golden Age murder weapon I’ve ever come across!)

As an aside, the British Museum Reading Room has featured in a number of other notable works of fiction. For example, it is the setting for the opening of M.R. James’s short story ‘Casting the Runes’, which was adapted into the 1957 film Night of the Demon.

Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (1995)

relic

A different type of book now – and a slightly different type of museum as well. Preston and Child’s book begins in 1987 and Dr Julian Whittlesey’s research expedition to the Amazon Basin. Whittlesey is seaching for the lost Kothoga tribe in order to learn about their culture and, specifically, their demonic lizard god Mbwun. When Whittlesey’s partner is killed, the scientist realizes that something is stalking him through the jungle…

We pick up the story in 1994, at a fictionalized version of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. A major exhibition is about to be launched, but plans are thrown into disarray when the bodies of two boys are found in the museum. The museum directors are keen to cover things up, but NYPD Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta, researcher Margo Green and journalist Bill Smithbank Jr. are on the case of the ‘Museum Monster’. They are joined by FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, making this the first of 16 novels by Preston and Child to feature their idiosyncratic FBI specialist. A sequel to RelicReliquary – was published in 1995, and a film adaptation – The Relic – was produced in 1997. Disappointingly for fans of Preston and Child’s novels, the character of Pendergast was left out of the film entirely, with his investigative role passed entirely to D’Agosta.

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (2008)

museum of innocence

While most of this week’s show was devoted to books inspired by museums, I thought it was only fair to include a museum inspired by a book (or rather, a museum created in tandem with a book). Nobel laureate Pamuk’s 2008 novel is set in Istanbul between 1975 and 1984, and it tells the story of Kemal Basmaci. Kemal begins the novel engaged to Sibel (a woman from his ‘own class’), but he becomes infatuated with his teenage cousin Füsun, who works in a clothes shop. At first the infatuation seems mutual, and they begin an affair. Things change after Füsun attends Kemal’s engagement party, as the young woman moves to another part of the city with her family. When Kemal eventually tracks her down, his attraction becomes obsession. Although Füsun is now married, Kemal befriends her family and attends dinner at her house most nights. Over the years, he steals thousands of mundane items from Füsun’s home (include a salt shaker she’s used and cigarette ends) and hoards them as a sort of personal museum to the object of his obsession.

In 2012, Pamuk established the Museum of Innocence in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. Although the book and the museum were created in tandem, Pamuk has stated that they can also be enjoyed independently. The Istanbul museum presents the things that the novel’s characters wore, used and collected (including the salt shakers and cigarette butts), as well as a collection of maps and photographs of Istanbul at the time the novel is set.

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit (1907)

enchanted castle

Okay… so this next example isn’t quite a museum, but I really wanted to talk about it (and hey! it’s my show)…

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs – also known as Dinosaur Court – are a series of sculptures that were commissioned in 1852 and unveiled in 1854. Designed and sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (under the scientific direction of Richard Owen, palaeontologist), they are the world’s first ever dinosaur sculptures. The story behind these sculptures is really fascinating, and very revealing of how the public’s love of dinosaurs was born. Sadly, palaeontology moved pretty quickly in those early days, and Hawkins’s sculptures were considered laughably inaccurate within decades of their installation. They fell into disrepair by the twentieth century, until some restoration work in 1952 began to revive their fortunes. Luckily for us, the sculptures were truly saved in 2002, with a full renovation and restoration project.

Dinosaur Court features in quite a few books (particularly children’s books), so I had to decide which one to feature on the show. I decided to go with Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, because… well… it’s E. Nesbit, and she’s awesome. We begin the book with three children (Gerald, Kathleen and Jimmy), who are spending their summer holidays near Castle Yardling. They play a game of Let’s Pretend and believe that they’ve found the castle’s enchanted princess. Of course, typical of Nesbit’s fantasy novels, the castle’s magic isn’t quite what they think it is – and it’s not quite as much fun as the kids expected. Although The Enchanted Castle is a bit of a change from Nesbit’s previous novel (The Railway Children), there’s plenty of her trademark commentary on down-to-earth economic concerns and the limitations of fantasy/magic.

Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood (1979)

life before man

And I continued with the dinosaurs in my next selection. Life Before Man is Atwood’s fourth novel, and it’s about Elizabeth and Nate, an unhappily married couple who are staying together for the sake of their children. Both Elizabeth and Nate have been unfaithful, and the novel begins with Nate having been dumped by his most recent girlfriend and Elizabeth grieving after her lover’s suicide.

Elizabeth is the director of a (fictional) museum of natural history. Also employed at the museum is Lesje, a palaeontologist fascinated by dinosaurs and by ‘life before man’. Nate begins a slow-burn relationship with Lesje, who stands in sharp contrast to Elizabeth (the former is an ‘innocent’, while the latter is poised, cynical and self-aware). As the three people struggle to relate to one another, and as relationships shift and change between them, the idea of ‘life before man’ shadows them, serving as both a hopeful hint of something different and a cynical reminder of the ultimate pointlessness of their petty issues. It’s a mark of how accomplished Atwood is as a writer that these ideas work so well together, and that the continuous shadow of extinction that hangs over the novel’s protagonists never quite becomes morbid or nihilistic.

Kraken by China Miéville (2010)

kraken

The final book on today’s show is a real favourite of mine. Kraken was the first China Miéville novel I read, and I was hooked from the very first descriptions of the Natural History Museum. It’s a richly entertaining book, which is steeped in Miéville’s characteristic ‘Weird London’ elements, as well as plenty of ‘real-life’ touchstones to keep you feeling like this might – just might – actually be reality.

We’re in London’s Natural History Museum for this final selection, and one of the museum’s iconic artefacts is at the centre of the plot. It’s ‘Archie’ – the museum’s rare Architeuthis dux (giant squid) specimin – who is the ‘kraken’ of the title. The books begins with museum employee Billy Harrow leading a tour of the Darwin Centre… but as the visitors eagerly await a glimpse of Archie, Billy realizes to his horror that the giant squid has been stolen. What follows is part urban fantasy, part thriller, part detective story. Billy is aided (sort of) by Krakenist cult member Dane, as well as the FSRC (Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes Unit – or ‘the bloody cult squad’, as they introduce themselves) and the ‘Londonmancers’ (holders of the knowledge of London’s magic). In the search for the giant squid, Billy is pitted against The Tattoo (a gangleader who happens to be a sentient tattoo), Goss and Subby (centuries-old assassins with a truly bizarre method of dispatching their targets – and, I think, my favourite characters in the book), and numerous other cults, sects and organizations (such as the ‘Chaos Nazis’). But which of these groups took the giant squid? And has it got anything to do with the apocalypse? And, if the answer to the previous question is ‘yes’, then just which apocalypse will it be?

If you’d like to read a bit more about the Natural History Museum (and a little bit more about Archie), there’s a post on our travel blog that might be of interest.

To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here:

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