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.
I would very happily spend 200 pages in Tangier with Bill Hamilton as my guide, since Berrow does a brilliant job of depicting the foreign milieu in a very tangible and picturesque way, but the walking MacGuffin that is Chiller will not be denied and so we must address the plot…
In all honesty, were Chiller not to committed to a life of tergiversation there’d be no plot to address — would the man just answer a couple of questions in a straightforward manner, it would be clear to everyone what the problem was, Bill wouldn’t go to the casino, then those men wouldn’t…well, spoilers, but for all the admiration Bill has for Chiller (ye gods, what was Berrow thinking with that sobriquet?), easily 70% of what transpires here is that man’s fault. However, the first half is great fun, with shady Arabs, lots of night-time chases, dodgy cafés and opium dens, unscrupulous murder, spycraft, a few canny sleight-of-handish manoeuvres to elude the good guys, and then a very enjoyable surprise of sorts dropped at the halfway mark to kick off the second half.
And the second half is…exactly the same. Another chase or two, a kidnap, an imprisonment, Chiller being about as good at his job as I would be in that situation, and then a long section in which Bill is, er, not so narratively free as he has been following the ‘revelation’ of a bad guy so unsurprising I legitimately didn’t realise we hadn’t already been told. There’s a really nice clue at one point where the presence of…something…that could not have been brought into Tangier points in a certain direction, but this is undone when it’s blithely asserted about three pages later that someone would be able to smuggle in a whole person by just dressing them up in mufti native costume and the police would be none the wiser — Berrow’s callowness showing there, methinks, but also indicating the sort of intelligent reasoning that would rear its head time and again in his very entertaining plots.
Hamilton featured in three books from Berrow, and were it not for Berrow’s tendency to write a 4-ish book series and then fly to other settings and people you’d feel inclined to read something into this relative brevity: he’s the sort of Stage 3 hot-head who gets all uptight at the impugning of a lady’s honour, rushes earnestly into a confrontation, and often ends up licking his wounds as a result. There’s nary a soupçon of humour in him — that’s left to Chiller, who quips when he should be answering questions — but his childlike naiveté is appealing if not exactly narratively sustainable. I’ve not read them yet, but I imagine I’d trade the two remaining Bill Hamilton novels for two more stories featuring the glorious Lancelot Carolus Smith and his cohorts any day of the week (these words come pre-garnished, ready for eating…).
The other people in the novel are…definitely there. There’s a Lovely Girl, a Colonel, a Sympathetically Enthusiastic Foreign Police Chief, sundry Suspicious Types, and more than a few Glowering Moroccans, all of whom conform so precisely to type that they’ll almost fail to register even as they say and do things on the page. Berrow’s view of the average Tangierian is pleasingly enlightened fo the time, but there can also be no denying his tendency to drop some perhaps moderately wince-inducing clangers here and there on account of his Bad Guys needing to be Very Very Bad…though none but the most desperate to be offended will find any grist for their mill, I feel.
All told, this is the exact book you probably suspect it is, with maybe an extra 5% for a couple of inventive ideas and a surprise or two. It’s a pleasing couple of hours, but on my current experience I very much get the feeling that Berrow did his best work once the Second World War was over and done with…
Norman Berrow reviews — all books available from Ramble House — on The Invisible Event: