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.