The detective novel often requests that you, the reader, swallow some fairly difficult concepts in order to fully engage with it — that someone can organically devise the methods of murder and misdirection depicted within, for instance, or that the mechanical solutions sometimes put froward do actually work in the manner described. However, the delightfully creative Norman Berrow, in his werewolf-on-the-prowl novel It Howls at Night (1937), demands of you the greatest degree of forbearance I’ve yet encountered, a hurdle some may struggle to overcome, in requiring you to believe that a man would actually go by the name of ‘Pongo Slazenger’.
Get past that, and you’re mostly in for a great time, as Young Adventurer Bill Hamilton gets caught up in another rousing yarn which actually manages to provide more than a little disquiet along the way. Breaking down near the isolated township of San Sajedo while on a lads’ driving holiday in Spain — though published in 1937, the story is set prior to the Spanish civil war — Hamilton and his three confrères happen upon the house of Celia Trent and her aunt and — under three nights of a full moon — are on the scene just as madness and bloody murder break out. First a local woman, then two members of the Spanish guardia are dispatched by an unseen howling beast, with one of the men managing to gasp out with his dying breath that it was “something like a wolf” before perishing from bloody wounds that will become all too familiar:
I am not going into details; I shall simply say this. Knives, daggers, stilettoes, anything of that nature was out of the question. The same applied to strangulation by rope, cloth, or wire. Throttling by the fingers could not possibly have lacerated the throat to that extent. It was patently ans sickeningly obvious that teeth — that sharp and powerful fangs had been employed…
And so begins the slow process by which terror begins to grip the valley, as the notion of a beast not quite wolf and not quite man dawns across the minds of all involved. We of course know that’s not what it’s going to be, but it’s pleasing to see that the process of elimination, ratiocination, and bargaining by which the conclusion is eventually reached hold up to modern scrutiny — if anything, the desire to leap two-footed into such a conclusion is fought off for as long as reason can prevail, but circumstances will contrive that even the most sceptical man is soon fearful of that blood-freezing howl…crikey, the events of chapter 11 even gave me the heebie-jeebies.
We’re still more Adventure than Detection here, but Berrow mostly handles things with remarkable assurance. The combination of event and speculation is well-juggled, and he captures the escalating sense of terror amidst the locals and British engineers alike with smartly-mounted aplomb, displaying an almost Carrian gift for juggling the atmospheric blank unease…:
The Wolf jumped overnight from a vague menace to a thundercloud from Hell, colossal, malignant, inevitable, heavy with unnameable terrors against which there was no natural defence … Scores of people saw it in the blackness of the night; still more saw it, in full cry, silhouetted against the moon. Descriptions varied. it was a black, shapeless monster, huge beyond belief; it was in the likeness of a wolf, but with the head of a man, that walked upright with a livid aura about it, and flame and smoke shot from mouth and nostrils as it breathed; it was in the likeness of a man, but with the head of a wolf, and it vanished as you looked, and those who saw it became afflicted with burning pains in the neck, as if their throats were open and running blood…
…with lighter moments of camaraderie and general badinage, such as solicitors typified as people who “don’t have to think; they act upon instructions and proceed according to precedent”, or the light, knowing way Dr. Thorndyke, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and their own “curious incident of the dog in the night-time” are stirred seamlessly into the brew. And, to be honest, it’s held back by only really two factors: firstly that it’s easily 30 pages too long — you could cut out literally everything George Winter says and does and this would be a far better book, and I’d advise skipping the Bullshit Science of chapter 24 entirely — and secondly that the explanation, impressively compact and compendious when it comes, and full of perfect reasoning and clever little nods and nudges at clues dropped along the way, still leaves you feeling a little bit…huh. Lord alone knows how, but even in a far more satisfying wrap-up than most of the other Berrow books I’ve read, it still feels somewhat underwhelming. Those 30+ pages it doesn’t need doubtless don’t help, but it’s still an anticlimax (and you’ll understand when you get there why I haven’t tagged this as an impossible crime).
Berrow HIBKs it a little too much at times, too, but makes up for that with some outstanding descriptions — scattered rocks in the Spanish desert as “bones of Mother Earth…pushing their way through the skin”, or “the shadow of the earth [biting] deeper and deeper into the moon” as the locals nervously pray for an other wolf-free night, or in Dr. Zöwe’s snarling assertion that “the old passions of hate and destruction are still there. And of killing and the lust for blood…” when Bill tries to ridicule the werewolf myth “in these days of television [and] pilotless aeroplanes”. And, on an entirely personal note, Berrow — responsible for introducing “hairy Aaron!” into my lexicon — gives yet another synonym for pent up frustration and/or incredulity with “Gordon’s beer!”…so expect to see that cropping up on here more and more.
With a tighter edit, this would earn another star, but with Berrow t’was ever thus. Of the twenty books he published — 21 if you count both versions of Ghost House (1940, 1979) — this is the tenth I’ve read, and my enthusiasm for the second half of his output remains undimmed. Though how he’ll top ‘Pongo Slazenger’ remains to be seen…
Norman Berrow reviews — all books available from Ramble House — on The Invisible Event: