#490: It Howls at Night (1937) by Norman Berrow

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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:

Featuring Bill Hamilton:

The Smokers of Hashish (1934)
It Howls at Night (1937)

Featuring Richard Courtenay:

The Secret Dancer (1936)
One Thrilling Night (1937)

Featuring Michael & Fleur Revel:

Fingers for Ransom (1939)
Murder in the Melody (1940)

Featuring Lancelot Carolus Smith:

The Bishop’s Sword (1948)
The Spaniard’s Thumb (1949)
The Footprints of Satan (1950)

Non-series:

Oil Under the Window (1936)

9 thoughts on “#490: It Howls at Night (1937) by Norman Berrow

  1. “…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…”

    This is one of my favourite elements in murder mysteries that flirt with the supernatural. It takes a pretty thick atmosphere to make the detective and the reader say, “Maybe…” I’m toying with a vampire idea right now. The U.S. had a vampire scare in New England in the 1800s. Tuberculosis was rampant. Naturally, vampirism was suspected, and lots of corpses were unearthed and staked as a precaution.

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    • I Still think Conan Doyle’s ‘The Sussex Vampire’ takes some beating in the rationalising-apparent-vampirism stakes (Ithankyou) — such a neat little story, so perfectly resolved.

      Which is, of course, not to say that another belter isn’t also possible 🙂

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    • Indeed, I love a nice supernatural horror element in my GAD. The Rim of the Pit, The Red Widow Murders, The Skeleton in the Clock, The Plague Court Murders, The Crooked Hinge – does it really get much better? The supernatural is fine window dressing, and can even carry a mystery that ultimately falls a bit flat in the solution department.

      Of course, it has to be played up well – I think few would really consider It Walks By Night to be the werewolf story it is marketed as, nor would we really consider He Who Whispers to really have any vampire angle. For that matter I hardly consider The Man Who Could Not Shudder to be a haunted house mystery.

      The best of these make you feel that real chill and urge to look over your shoulder. We know that there isn’t a murderous automaton or the ghost of a centuries dead hangman, but you can’t help but feel like there might be…

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        • “Suspension of disbelief” really is the key thing, isn’t it? This, I feel, might be where the best impossible crime stories really excel themselves — not that you suspend belief in order to accept the answers given (in that case, you’ve probably read a bad book), but that your disbelief that it could never happen is sidelined.

          We know going in — or at least we hope — that it’s not actually going to be a ghost, a curse, an evil shade from another dimension, but the edifice stands on how smartly the reader can be made to believe in the actions or the apparent impossibilitity while all the time knowing things will be rationally resolved.

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