Aaaah, Norman Berrow. Such highs, such lows, so much middle ground. I can’t think of anyone else who leaves me on such a knife-edge: with a few adjustments here and there Berrow could well have written some genre classics, and it’s often an agonising fascination waiting to see which way the book falls. So now we’re back at the very beginning with his first novel The Smokers of Hashish (1934), decidedly more adventure than detection, where he applies his chameleonic tendencies to some (ahem) intrigue in Tangier. As you may expect from a book of this era with this title, the result is pulpy fun, though with two neat moments to distinguish it.
Young Bill Hamilton — of indeterminate age, purpose, and provenance — is living on Gibraltar with his family and heads over to Tangier for the weekend to make love (in the 1930s sense, you understand) to his intended sweetheart, the ward of a family friend. A chance encounter with old school chum Charles ‘Chiller’ Edgerton ends up disrupting these plans significantly, not least because Edgerton appears to be in the pay of the US security services and may have business in the city. Cue shenanigans, kidnap and rescue involving various people in different combinations and roles, and the unveiling of the ‘surprise’ mastermind behind the semi-coherent scheme used to justify it all. As I said: pulpy but fun.
The writing is very accomplished, however, especially in the scene-setting; if Berrow never went to Tangier himself then he read some damfine guidebooks:
One just lands at Tangier. There are no Customs houses, no passport officials, and no medical officers. But there are beggars, thinly disguised as porters, and street vendors innumerable. These descended on us in a swarm and deafened us with their clamour. The combined stench was wonderful. The porters all but knocked us down in their efforts to wrest from us our parcels and suitcases. Those of us who managed to fight our way through this front line of Tangier’s defences soon found ourselves in the reserve trenches.
11 thoughts on “#451: The Smokers of Hashish (1934) by Norman Berrow”
I am baffled by the cover. Why are the angles so wonky? Why is the penciling not in the direction of the angles the walls are supposed to be? How does the assailant have his fingers around the corner without bending them, and why would he make his fingers visibile to the trenchcoat-figure anyway? If the basket of oranges indicates the location of the floor, does that mean that the assailant is not only quite a bit larger than the trenchcoat-figure, but also that both of them have gigantic upper bodies, super-long arms and yet miniature legs??
All these questions — and more! — are answered within!!!
Yeah, after my frankly disappointing experience with Oil Under the Window and my seeming inability to penetrate past Chapter One of The Words Have Wings, I think I’ll just savor the two L.C. Smith classics I have left to read (yes, I’m saving The Footprints of Satan and The Bishop’s Sword for special occasions) and rely on you to point me in any other good direction.
Absolutely — I’ll definitely read everything he’s written in the fullnless of time, so use me as a pointer to what I think are the good ones. And then disagree volubly at your place 😉
I’m confused . . . I can’t recall a single moment when we have disagreed . . .
The only Berrow I have read is The Footprints of Satan, which is a genuine classic but I am somehow under the impression that none of his other books are as good. What else would you recommend to a Berrow neophyte?
Try The Bishop’s Sword — it’s easy to solve, but a lot of fun, and uses its various impossible situations superbly.
Depending on your resposne to that, we’ll talk further…
Neil, in addition to TBS, I highly recommend The Three Tiers of Fantasy, which may not be a classic in the FoS mold but is great fun and contains three impossible crime situations, one of them (the second one) a classic IMHO.
Thanks for the recommendations!
I think I’ll try The Three Tiers of Fantasy first because, upon reflecting, I am not sure I can fully trust the opinion of someone who dismisses Ellery Queen. 😛
Is someone around here dismissing Ellery Queen? Well, I hope they don’t spread their negative attitude over here, where I’m busy examining and critiquing the endurance of the EQ legacy, and mess up all my good work…