As I wend my merry way through the works of Norman Berrow — this is the seventh book of his I’ve read, thanks to the wonderful efforts of Ramble House in republishing his entire catalogue — I’m forced into a certain awareness: I really like his style of mystery, even though they fall slightly below the standard I’d typically expect. His characters are fun, his situations inventive, he doesn’t bog you down in mucilaginous prose, and the fact that he jumped between five different (albeit short) series plus standalones in his career invited a certain variation in his approaches that stops things getting samey. If the plots occasionally fall short of full brilliance…I can live with that. But it makes things a little tricky from a reviewing perspective.
Murder in the Melody (1940) is the second of four books to feature novelist Michael Revel and his wife Fleur, who live on the apparent British colony of Eulalie Island (everything is priced in £, there’s a discussion of the practices of American vs. English law enforcers, etc) which may or may not actually be an island, I couldn’t tell (it has a coastline, but then Rhode Island isn’t an island…). Listening to the local radio station one evening while entertaining the island’s chief law enforcer Detective Sergeant John Walsh, the announcer’s closing message is interrupted by a sharp bang and, when the phone rings a few minutes later, Walsh is needed at the radio station on account of the shooting that just took place there.
The back cover of this Ramble House edition — and if I have one complaint regarding their output it’s that they do this far too often — calls this an impossible crime, but it isn’t. Anyone could have walked in off the street and committed the murder, and that the chief suspect has an alibi as flimsy as…I dunno, a wet handkerchief is pointed out repeatedly throughout. For a little while I had a suspect of my own in mind, with the crime worked in a way that would have made it a retrospective impossibility but, well, that person drops from the narrative almost immediately and is never investigated or considered ever again. So much for that, then. Walsh investigates, with Michael Revel helping out, and we watch things unfold through his self-effacing narration:
Take a hundred ordinary, average men, shuffle them, draw one at random, and you’ve got me… If you’re really interested, I wear glasses, which detracts from the sex appeal I already do not possess, I write books for a living for Fleur and myself, and I am getting on with the job…
In a way, this novel encapsulates everything that’s good and bad about Berrow’s novels: a smattering of throwaway lines give us context and some historical minutiae such as the workings of the lift in their building or Michael glancing through the “middle pages” of the local newspaper “to see what Messrs. Hitler, Mussolini and Franco had been up to”, and the casual disdain with which Michael and Detective Constable Jack Kay treat each other bespeaks perfectly of a friendship they clearly both value. There are enough little additions to the essential core of the murder to show Walsh is a competent and astute operator, and his thoroughness coupled with his candour at the frustrations felt make him a real person rather than your standard cipher (though Revel calling him “the most felonious official detective I’ve ever met” isn’t far off the mark at times…even Joseph French would blanch). All told, it’s a bravura performance. So far, so good.
But then there’s the mystery, which on account of the framing is very easy to solve, and not really that creative when you come down to it. in terms of structure it’s at least more developed than The Secret Dancer (1936) or that novel’s prequel-sequel One Thrilling Night (1937), but there’s a difficulty in the structuring that inevitably gives away what’s happening. In fairness, this results partly because Berrow has more integrity than to simply throw the Revels headlong into the core of the investigation where they obviously don’t belong — they’re on the fringes, and live relatively normal lives that happen to intersect with the investigation on account of their friendship with Walsh (among other things) — but there would be (and, yes, I’ve said this before) a slight fix that would turn this into a more successful piece of misdirection rather than simply flopping the carcase of the answer on the page in front of you.
But, well, the clear fun Berrow is having is infectious, with occasional detours into exchanges such as…
“I wish,” he said with his mouth full, “I was a detective in a book.”
“Good God!” ejaculated Walsh. “Is that the height of your ambition? Have you no pride?”
“How do you know you’re not?” I murmured.