It is due to experiences akin to that of reading The Bishop’s Sword – a euphemism of a title if ever there was one, though here referring to a literal sword once owned by a bishop – that I started this blog in the first place. Picking up a book with very little to go on (a cursory, and then slightly more thorough, search online revealed not a single review of this anywhere) and having it turn out to be an absolute joy is the kind of thing I have to share with someone though, while in no way dismissing the many fine qualities that they do possess, not the kind of thing my friends necessarily share my enthusiasm for. And so I throw this to the interwebs, that you may be a way of enabling me to feel that someone who might be intrigued is going to share in this, and frankly you’re on to a corker if you decide to partake. You are, of course, most welcome.
Three impossibilities are promised on page one – the priceless eponymous sword stolen from its hermetically-sealed casing, a man locked up in jail managing to visit two different people on two different nights, and a disappearance from a cave with one point of ingress/egress that seven people enter and only six leave. This is not accurate. There are actually four impossibilities, the extra one being a miraculous disappearance from a room whose only unobserved exit is a window locked from the inside. Mixed together, it’s like Hake Talbot decided to settle down and write conventional English Country House mysteries but then couldn’t resist throwing in impossibility after impossibility just to keep himself interested. It is a huge amount of fun, and plotted so neatly and so well dovetailed that I’m able to forgive the couple of flaws that others may struggle to overlook (of which more later).
It is difficult to know where to begin. Berrow exhibits an astoundingly light touch throughout, managing to be both playful and serious, light and dark, and to give you characters that are familiar archetypes but also feel somehow richer. Take improbably-named (and likely-bullied-at-school) policeman of the piece, Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith: in the entire book we’re explicitly told that he a) is 43 years old, b) has thick dark hair with a sprinkling of grey, and c) wears a hat. Nothing more. So far he could be Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockrill just as easily as Josephine Tey’s character-void Alan Grant. And yet within five pages of his introduction – following a conversation with his superior officer and, particularly, a comment made in response to another character at a crime scene – I had a sense of him as a finely-realised intelligent, observant man whose occasional forays into waspishness are born more from irritation with himself than any expression of outward irritation with or at others. Take the following conversation, regarding the strange Mr. Strange who is at the centre of the plot:
Mr. Smith raised his eyebrows whimsically, “That makes him out a charlatan then?”
“Yes, of course. The world’s full of religious fakers like Strange.”
“I’d hardly call him religious. Religion, according to him, is a miasma – soothing dope for the unthinking masses, same like Lenin said.”
“Did he?” asked the colonel sarcastically. “And where is Lenin now?”
“I don’t know,” said the inspector flippantly. “These Russians never tell you anything.”
Now, if course, not everyone gets quite the same treatment, but it’s interesting how smartly Berrow sidesteps a lot of expectations – the Elderly Christian Widow, the Loyal Gardener, the Background Police Officers Who Do the Real Work, the Slightly Caddish Bright Young Gentleman, even the Mumbo-Jumbo Spouting Quasi-Religious Outsider (shades of Anthony Boucher’s Nine Time Nine there) – just when you think you know exactly what you’re getting, a turn of phrase will hint at another side to a character whose measure you thought you had.
Equally, his plotting, while never lurching too far beyond the conventional expectations, hits a few unexpected turns while simultaneously fitting together in a way that is marvellously clever; each cog and each action plays its part, but it feels like something hewn from of genuine occurrence rather than simply a way of getting his plot forrader. It is – and here’s a word I don’t use very much – charming. It moves purposefully but is light on its feet, and doesn’t save all its revelations for the end; it treats its readers as intelligent people, and is astonishingly lucid in its explanations. It may be just a trifle too long as a result of this dedication to clarity, but there’s certainly no risk of you going away short-changed.
As to the impossibilities…well. To Berrow’s immense credit they are entertainingly presented and you have the information needed to resolve each of them, some of it very subtly conveyed (indeed, you have a crucial piece of information that Smith lacks for quite some time). They are not especially baffling – this reader was able to figure out all four of them – but they do fit inside of the plot superbly. One in particular is possibly pushing things a little too far, trying a little too hard to be confounding when it isn’t really, and has a solution (as hinted above) that some people won’t like. Personally, I take it as part of the whole, and the whole is an unexpected delight. One very slight element is unresolved – and I really must here stress that it is only very slight – but, again, it depends on whether you need everything to be perfectly tied up with absolutely no objections. That’s not an implied criticism, some people do, but you’ll get much more out of this if you treat it as a near-seamless piece of puzzle plotting that was only ever intended to entertain.
I bought this purely on the fact that it sounded interesting and Ramble House had published it (it could have easily turned out to be one of their ‘Ooooo, how mysterious’ pieces of supernatural fiction, given that arm of their output), but Norman Berrow has been the discovery of my year, and – while lacking his ingenuity – reminds me of fellow Ramble House loon Rupert Penny (high praise indeed coming from me, as you’ll know!). To publishers like them, Rue Morgue Press and Locked Room International I once again raise my hat – may they all keep up their ongoing mission of bringing these gems back to the light for our enjoyment. And here’s hoping I’ve persuaded you that this is worthy of your time, because it really, really is.