Norman Berrow writes great policemen. His other characters are very good — he has Agatha Christie’s ability to give you an archetype plus enough to be quietly, subtly powerful — but his policemen are superb. After reading three later Berrows featuring Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith and his lackeys, I’m leaping back to Berrow’s second novel here, and well before the halfway point I was lamenting the fact that this seems to be the only case calling on Superintendent Mellish, Inspector Sennet, and the delightfully earnest Constable Ensor. They take a standard Country House Mystery and transform it through their cheek, cleverness, and camaraderie into something that feels like the start of a very promising career indeed. Alas, not to be.
In the small village of Wincham — note the same pronunciation as the setting of the Smith novels, albeit spelled differently — Sir Julius Rutter receives a note from a criminal styling themselves ‘The Black’ warning of their intention to steal a valuable piece of jewellery in Sir Julius’ possession (it’s not unlike Max Afford’s Owl of Darkness in this regard). In true GAD nobleman style, this is disdained, and then of course the theft occurs, complete with an attempt on Sir Julius’ life and, well, a host of other events to go with it. Cue Sennet and Ensor, the local bobbies, and then, when the case appears beyond their abilities, the summoning of Scotland Yard man Melling. Shenanigans ensue.
Quick — name a GAD trope. Yup, that’s probably in here. From various suspicious outbuildings, an abandoned lodge house, and the uptight sister of the resident pain-in-the-arse baronet to curious footprints, clues that point nowhere, and a late night vigil that isn’t as successful as intended, it’s all here, and there’s a huge amount of comfort from not just encountering them but also in how well Berrow works them into his setup. And rather than simply relying on you knowing all the tropes and what to expect, he does a great job setting mood and scenes, from the calm and sleepy Wincham where “the nearest approach to a villain … was Sam Gubbin, an incurable, intermittent inebriate” to the pecuniary attitude of Sir Julius who “invariably economised on other people first”, there’s a command of brevity that it’s difficult not to enjoy.
The cast is appropriately closed — along with those three policemen, there are three people living in the house, plus a handful of servants — and in these conditions it’s possible for a fair proportion of readers to hit on the guilty party through sheer statistics. Anyone who spots outright exactly what was going on the whole time is better at this than me, because the finger of suspicion points in so many directions (often more than one at a time, given some of the clues) that I’d be surprised if Providence herself weren’t a little dizzy and footsore at times. Add a semi-impossible aspect to the crimes, and a vanishing not unlike that in Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and you’re set for a grand old time.
However, this is only Berrow’s second novel, and as such he’s going to drop a ball or two. As with The Spaniard’s Thumb and elements of The Bishop’s Sword, his resolution of the impossibilities is workmanlike and too simplistic given the interesting context in which he establishes them. Equally, while he shows a very firm hand with some obscure clues, the joining of all the points come the end requires a couple of stretches that would beleaguer even the most ardent recidivist. None of this is enough to ruin the book, and in spite of it failing to earn a place in the top drawer I’d argue it’s still well worth the time of anyone with more than a passing interest in this kind of thing, but considering the company Berrow was keeping at this time (the previous couple of years had seen Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Three-Act Tragedy, Carr’s Plague Court Murders and The Hollow Man, Queen’s The Lamp of God, and Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men…and that’s off the top of my head) some temperance is called for lest we get too carried away.
But I do so enjoy Berrow, and I fully intend to read the remaining 16 books of his that Ramble House have put out. He has a firm grasp of setting, never sells you short on his female characters, and writes like a dream. And, consider, it’s arguable that the roots of Lancelot Carolus Smith & Co. were sown here, and time spent with anything approaching that bunch of fine young men is never wasted.