Bill Hamilton, having previously chased hashish smugglers and a werewolf (separately) around Spain, now finds himself in his homestead of Gibraltar contending with a “London particular” fog, three murdered men hanging from the rafters of an abandoned storehouse, and a mysteriously faceless nun intent on causing all manner of havoc. Yes, The Terror in the Fog (1938) is quite unmistakably a Norman Berrow novel — this mixture of superstition and cold, hard murder is Berrow’s bailiwick, and here are glimpses of the very fine novels he would go on to produce — and from early on it feels by far the most confident of his career to this point.
As with The Footprints of Satan (1950), which I currently consider to be his masterpiece, Berrow is more than happy to take some time to set up his atmosphere and setting: young, carefree Michael Fairlie returning to Gibraltar and looking to call on some old chums for a spot of reminiscing (preferably over a drink or twelve) must first stumble around in the increasingly dense and paralysing fog that renders events so problematic. As with the cosy domesticity of the village in …Footprints, you take a little while to build to the action, but the creeping tendrils of fog gradually work their hooks into you, with figures looming ominously, possible spectres vanishing at will, and an eerie dread soaking through Berrow’s measured, patient moodiness. If you can imagine James Thomson’s epic poem ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ (1874) repurposed as a detective-thriller, you’re not far off.
Against the terrors and phalanx of bewilderment that will result we have the motley crew of young layabout/novelist Bill Hamilton, chief of police Captain ‘Happy’ Merryweather, and Fairlie himself, running into dead bodies, suspicious Spaniards, vanishing valets, and a beautiful Damsel in Peril at seemingly every turn. We get two minor impossibilities — the bolting of a door to a house where all the occupants are dead, and the appearance of a dead body in a place heavily guarded and watched — resolved with Berrow’s usual commitment to the impossible crime, which is desultory at best. Given that my first couple of Berrows featured fabulous impossibilities, I spent a while expecting him to always commit that fully, but with time and experience I’ve now come to read him far more for the experience of watching his addlepated protagonists bounce from one situation to the next in an entertaining idiom that’s all his own.
In the same way that you never start a detective novel doubting that the case will be solved — and I’m talking classic, GAD novels here, not some navel-gazing 2010s “comment on the ills of society” nonsense — but still enjoy the process, I very much enjoy the edge Berrow brings to his peril while never really believing for a second that anyone’s at risk. Perversely, this has the effect of making me feel the deaths that do occur a little more keenly — always to minor characters, of course, but when death intrudes in a Berrow book it doesn’t feel to me as if he’s just trying to provide a plot-propelling corpse. Something about death in these books always hits me, possibly also on account of Berrow’s ability to juggle lightness and the sinister in such close proximity:
[A]s we strode up the Rock in that dense, direction-destroying fog, Michael told us of his experiences, touching very, very lightly on the girl. “Ha!” snorted Merryweather, “the romantic interest. This is quite according to Hoyle…You can’t use this, Bill, it’s been done before.”
“Everything’s been done before,” I said absently. “Gosh, that’s quite a weighty reflection when you look into it.”
Berrow, too, has a tighter hold on the tropes of detection at this stage, too, which adds some interest whenever, say, two samples of handwriting appear to be the same or questions of identity rise to the surface. It shows a marked confidence from the fun-but-straightforward The Secret Dancer (1936) when we’re already getting explanations at the halfway stage of the narrative only for one detail not to fit, and for that to then to shoved in and force something else out back at the beginning of the surmise…Berrow isn’t quite at the multiple false solutions level yet, but his increased confidence in structure is marked when held against what preceded this. In being able to lean into and disarm the trappings of this sort of adventure-detection — “For a satisfactory, dramatic finish there should have been a fight…necessitating pages of good, meaty, descriptive stuff that an author could wallow in” — he’s almost confronting the flaws in his own narrative (the reader will, Hamilton tells us, have anticipated the “big twist” before our narrator, but then the reader is sat somewhere comfortable and reading this at his leisure, rather than being caught up in the maelstrom) which don’t quite excuse said flaws while also making space for them to be entirely acceptable.
It’s unsurprising to me now that Berrow abandoned Hamilton after this and moved onto a new series featuring Michael and Fleur Revel. The two men are similarly disarming about their flaws — in the Berrowverse it’s actually Michael Revel who has written these novels featuring Hamilton, which is a genius piece of meta-justification for their similarities — with Hamilton perhaps never more piquantly captured than the moment herein where he admits that “About all they ever taught me when I was at school was to bring the left leg well across when making a square cut, and to be considerate to women”. The limitations of the Spain/Gibraltar setting are exposed here, too, even with a civil war as background, and this feels like Berrow wrote the Bill Hamilton book he wanted to and so moved on to a new challenge. Mainly, I’m just delighted to see Norman Berrow get a firmer grip on the dark arts of pacing, plot complexity, and inventive situations; it feels as if the books I’ve read after this are generally stronger, so maybe this was the turning point.
Norman Berrow reviews — all books available from Ramble House — on The Invisible Event: