Sometimes I think it is possible to become jaded from reading too much of the same type of book. I signed up to this GAD blogging lark on my own initiative, and it’s the genre I prefer to read, but the need to get in at least one, and ideally two, a week to meet my own self-imposed deadlines can lead at times to a little disaffection creeping in. Thankfully, via the exemplary work of Fender Tucker’s Ramble House imprint, I have discovered the books of Norman Berrow, and so if my will be wandering I have the option of returning to the lightness and joy of his entertaining milieu. He’s not a plotter par excellence, but I find these books fun in a way that obviates my usual requirements in this direction. Prose before pose, dudes.
One Thrilling Night (1937) is the second and final novel to feature Detective Inspector Richard Courtenay, another example of Berrow’s ability to conjure effortlessly sympathetic and enjoyable policemen with the barest turn of a pen, and here he’s given another one night, one location stumper: a fashionable London set, a party game played in darkness, a crime, another crime, and then another… The synopsis promises an impossibility that does not occur — this is one of those “who was where when?” puzzles, and by no means impossible — but the structure brings to my mind, quite genuinely, Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie.
Approximately the first third is given over to the introduction of the characters and the crime itself. It’s worth remarking how in the first eight pages Berrow drops no fewer than 12 characters on you in a manner that keeps them distinct from their initial appearance, but then he’s helped by writing like this:
Your hostess, Mrs. Mostyn-Martyn. Note the “y”s. They make all the difference between Mayfair and, say, Kensington. They place her at once. Mrs. Mostyn-Martyn is still a young woman. She is twenty-nine — she has been twenty-nine for the past four years.
These people are, possibly, of the Smart Set; but I shouldn’t call them Bright Young Things. The B.Y.T. are a group of crazy children who should be up-ended and soundly spanked by their long-suffering but apparently feeble-minded parents.
The narrative voice Berrow adopts has this sort of paternalistic air to it, regaling events in the third person but dropping in every so often a first-person reflection on what’s happening that can’t help but quirk the corners of even the driest soul (e.g., It is pretty difficult to hiss a sentence without a single sibilant in it, but that is the only way I can describe it). And his character work in moments of light description (She sensed the men present — Cleopatra knew when a man was about even in pitch darkness) is the sort of thing literature courses should study at exhaustive and misery-inducing length.
The second third sees the appearance of our detective, and the rounds and rounds of interviews that mark the remainder of the book — like our train-bound Belgian friend, Courtenay is in no rush to lessen the pressure or discomfort of this situation for those involved, and his apparently haphazard ordering of the interviewees is explained away very cleverly in one of those moments of clarity at which Berrow so excels. Here and there are sparkles of the steadfastly skewed way of looking at the world that GAD fiction has at its best — the difference between men’s afternoon and evening dress trousers, for one — but mainly these are helped along by clear ideas communicated cleanly (a map of the house would have been nice as a lot of rooms are used, but is by no means essential).
We then get, in the final third, an escalation of the challenge, and the eventual piecing together of seemingly unrelated and casual observations before our ‘tec gathers everyone in the dining car Drawing Room to expound his solution. Where this interviews-as-structure falls down, in contract to Christie’s rightly more famous utilisation, is that Berrow again lacks a truly brilliant solution, or even the flashes thereof. His answers are fine, but the head-scrambling process of working out precisely who was where and when demands a bigger payoff — a levelled finger and “So you dunnit!” isn’t quite what we’re after. He even sets up the opportunity for something moderately clever that is never fired, and I wonder how many of his 20 published novels will fizzle out in this way.
But I do appreciate Berrow’s gleeful hand-rubbing enjoyment of throwing so many materials into the mix and ensuring he manages to pluck more than a few memorable characters from the resulting brew (I also learned the origin of the name Abigail, which is an interesting bonus). For ingenuity you should look elsewhere, but this is another recommended resting place for any weary travellers passing through.