You can tell it’s been a tough couple of weeks, because I’ve reverted to my reading Happy Place — Carter Dickson, Max Afford, and now Norman Berrow (there was a traumatic Ngaio Marsh experience in there, too, but the less said about that the better). My entirely non-chronological sampling of this delightful Kiwi — probably the most purely joyous GAD author I read — continues apace, since this is the preceding title to Murder in the Melody (1940), the last Berrow I read…no, I have no idea why I’m doing it like this. I’ll make sure his debut The Smokers of Hashish (1934) is the next Berrow I pick up. Just bear with me, eh? It’s been a tough couple of weeks.
This, then, is the first of four novels to feature Michael and Fleur Revel, who head out on a road trip, call into a small local hotel for the night, and find themselves confronting a dead body and the vanishing of another guest. It is full of the sort of casual asides Berrow does so well — a waitress whose apron is “starched practically bullet proof”, a grandfather clock ringing the change of hour after every other clock in the vicinity “holding his breath and hoping that no-one had heard, or, if he had been heard, that no-one had noticed how late he’d been” — before we’re presented with what appears to be the central problem of the piece: a dead man in a bathtub, with malice undecided.
“He was not drowned, he was not asphyxiated, he was not doped. Neither was he slugged, nor shot, nor stabbed, nor strangled, nor any other thing that is murderous. He just died. And if the cause of death was heart-failure, there was no traceable reason for the failure.”
I didn’t even mind the entirely pointless chapter of drunken carousing and mawkish song-writing (it’s nice to see a couple so in love as are the Revels, but ye gods doesn’t Michael ever going on about Fleur’s hair and eyes and special smile get boring — lampshade it all you like, Berrow, there’s still a limit…). What I did mind is how, once we reach this death and vanishment, the entire narrative grinds to a juddering and horrible halt for fully 60 pages of…nothing.
“Not nothing,” you might object, “there’s the inquest” — and I’d point out that the 18 pages devoted thereto could be covered in three sentences, but Berrow’s rather too in love with his pedantic medical examiner and so must drag things out in order to deliver a single revelation (in the course of which thoroughly destroying the concept of what Michael has told us earlier was a clue — that is not how clues work). And then 40 pages pass in which everyone leaves town, after which…they all meet up in another town. It’s never a good sign when your narrator starts a late chapter with the words “I should imagine that up to now this must have seemed a somewhat rambling and disjointed narrative” and then assures you that “it has by no means merely been a record of a succession of trivialities”. It’s even worse when that tuns out to be false (I call your attention, m’lud, to the aforementioned carousing).
Then, as if perceiving the lack of interest the reader is experiencing, Berrow throws you into decidedly more parlous waters: an explosion of violence that sits uneasily against the tone heretofore, with lots of blood, a chopped up body, sudden peril and missing people, the eponymous grisly items received in the mail…and, boy, is it hard to care. We get treated to a Big Revelation that is fine but hardly interesting, and the narrative spirals down the same chute explored by The Owner Lies Dead (1930) by Tyline Perry in that if you have ever read a book before the scheme here is remarkably easy to see through (hello, Chopped Up Body With No Hands, Feet, or Face That’s Still Definitely the Person Whose Clothes It’s Dressed In — After All It’s Not Like Someone Else Has Gone Missing So Who Else Could It Possibly Be?). Berrow’s puzzles aren’t always the tightest — and, since he published nothing between 1940 and 1946, I’m inclined to believe he was noticing it himself — but this is loosey-goosey in the worst possible way.
But, well, until the narrative stalls there’s still a lot of fun here. I especially love the conceit that Michael, an author of crime novels, is credited with writing Berrow’s five earlier books featuring Bill Hamilton and Richard Courtenay, creating a universe-within-a-universe that appeals to my soft-meta brain. However, the flaws in the likes of Oil Under the Window (1936) and The Secret Dancer (1936) are more tolerable because those novels are propulsive and contain very little fat. This wallows, alas, and so it would be cuckoo to claim it enjoys anything like as much success. And, hey, at least Berrow seems to have been aware of this and so took time out of writing to sort his plots out a bit, right? Right? Ah, man, I really hope so; I know things pick up once Lancelot Carolus Smith appears on the scene, so I remain optimistic that this was simply a phase.
In short, the reader is warned: the solution to that bathtub death is one of those “Well, no-one was seen to leave and so no-one could have done the killing, but the killer clearly just slipped out of this room and no-one noticed…” affairs, and the rest of the book pitches at about that level. Don’t start here or else you’re unlikely to ever read another one of Norman Berrow’s novels, and that would be a shame. When he’s good he’s very good, but on this particular occasion he is, unfortunately, horrid.
I shall, in time, review every single one of Berrow’s books because of the sheer joy his writing (normally) brings me. Thus far, you can find the following of his novels — all available from Ramble House — dissected here on The invisible Event: