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.”