#679: The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) by Norman Berrow

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As a wrangler of mysteries, Norman Berrow has many equals and several betters, but as an incorporator of impossibilities he’s in the front rank.  Ever since first reading him with The Bishop’s Sword (1948) I’ve been struck by how neatly he folds his apparently undoable criminous schemes into the plots of his later novels — we’ll get to Early and Late Berrow in due course — and The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) is another great example of this.  Yes, two of the apparent mysteries herein are pretty solvable at first sight, but the reason for those mysteries and the use of the impossibility to achieve those ends is as brilliant as ever.

It appears that Berrow’s writing career was cleaved by the Second World War, and whatever he did during that conflict certainly helped his writing: his published works up until 1940 show a keen imagination undercut by a weakness in complexity (the man did love a hidden passage…), and then from 1946 onwards what I’ve read is much more adroitly wrangled.  To keep in strict chronology I should have read Words Have Wings (1946), the third novel to feature Michael and Fleur Revel, this week, but seeking out comfort reading I leapt instead into the welcoming arms of Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith and the three seemingly impossible feats that await him in and around the quiet countryside town of Winchingham.

These three mysteries — the apparent non-existence of a man seen only by one person, the appearance of a ghostly room from over a century before, and the vanishing of a cobbled side street — split the book into essentially three novellas, with Smith bouncing from one to the next and being simply a delight while doing so:  commending his junior officers on their amateur dramatics, frankly experiencing moments of revelation with all the joy of “a small boy at a circus”, and generally playing against type as much as Berrow likes…

“Of course,” said Mr. Smith softly.  “Ha!  Ho!”

“What’s that mean?”

“Nothing.  I occasionally make noises like that.  It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m being cunning, or even thinking, but it’s inclined to give people that impression.  Which is all to the dignity and prestige of the Force…”

By the end, when Smith gets to revel in his “quite unprofessional flair for the dramatic” by recreating each of the three impossibilities, you’ve been taken through three delightfully distinct and evocative tales of the unexpected, displaying the sort of confidence and flair that would have heightened Berrow’s reputation had he uncorked it earlier.  There’s something fresh and timeless about the world here, with mounted policemen and 15th century time travel rubbing shoulders with black market cigarettes and people with a fear of banks because “they have had husbands or father or brothers who have made unfortunate speculations with sometimes disastrous results to their families’ lives and circumstances”.  Berrow was guilty of longueurs in his First Period, but has shaken that off here, and it all whips by in a flash that’ll have a smile on your face for the overwhelming majority of its duration.  And every time the mystery threatens to become too nebulous, or the sense of the uncanny too overstated, you’re brought back to reality by characters who know each other well and exchange dialogue like

“I’d like to hear what the psychiatrist bloke has to say about it.”

“I wouldn’t.  He’d probably say the same thing only use longer words.”

Along the way, you get clues in dialogue, clues that you’re told are clues, and the steady creation of these three piled tiers that Smith is able to bring crashing down through a combination of smart observation and a genuine acuity in recognising the reasons for these events in the first place.  I think the core idea here is inspired and brilliantly realised, and can’t help but agree with the character who asserts that “Chesterton would have loved this”.  It’s not the most baffling, but I’d also argue that the second tier is a very clever piece of stage management and misdirection which, even if it gets a little overstuffed, is surely great fun to see deconstructed.  And Smith’s reasoning that the third and final tier is the shakiest and riskiest of the lot proves to be very well-founded, providing the empirical evidence so cleverly missing elsewhere.

So, look, the hardened GAD readers among you will find little here to surprise, but pretty much everyone will find plenty to delight.  It seems like Berrow is finally cutting loose and having some fun, and this continues through the other Smith novels I’ve read — I’m yet to encounter any of his other post-WW2 series — and augurs well for this Second Period.  At a time when most of the fun in the real world seems to be verboten, this is the exact vacuum fiction fills, and I defy you to have a much more gleeful time between the pages of a book than in The Three Tiers of Fantasy.  Though, of course, let me know if you do, because whatever book that is must be wild

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See also

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: [T]his is a different kind of crime story, full of puzzles that are ultimately explained and criminals who are finally unmasked. I guess you could label this more of a “caper” with plenty of impossible crime elements to enthral you. It tends toward the whimsical…but it does have its share of clever fair play stuff. I particularly loved the whole revelation of the Tier Two mystery. That one, I thought, was particularly fine.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: The situations are splendid…[b]ut the resolution is disappointing. There aren’t any murders, so the book lacks that ‘Whodunit?’ tug. The solution to the first mystery is obvious and underwhelming; to the second, highly technical (diagram, please!); the third is workmanlike. It takes fully a quarter of the book to explain the mysteries – but the actual solution isn’t particularly complex.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: One by one, Smith strips them of their unearthly quality to reveal “the underlying sordid, mercenary motive” and, as an impossible crime, fanboy it was joy to read these chapters. You can figure out pretty much everything before you get to these explanatory chapters, but loved how these plot-strands were intertwined and knotted together at the end. Some other, non-impossible aspects of the solution were a bit cliché, but, honestly, I have never seen them put to better use than here.

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If you’re still reading, I have a query concerning the chronology of Berrow’s works.  I know Ramble House sometimes get their publication dates a little muddled, but here it gets additionally confusing.  The foreword of this makes reference to the Smith novel Don’t Go Out After Dark (19??) and there’s even a reference to it in the novel itself — “Haven’t seen much of you since that Gardens case” — which would imply it precedes this title.  But all my searching, including on the excellent Facsimile Dust Jackets site, seems to reveal that DGOAD was published in 1950.  And if it was written after this but set before it, the foreword here wouldn’t say that it had already been published…right?  So, any ideas?  Does anyone possess the first editions of these, to settle the matter?  My understanding of Berrow’s chronology can be found here, and I’m keen for it to be accurate if at all possible.  Thanks in advance for any guidance.

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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)
The Terror in the Fog (1938)

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 Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947)
The Bishop’s Sword (1948)
The Spaniard’s Thumb (1949)
The Footprints of Satan (1950)

Non-series:

Oil Under the Window (1936)
Ghost House (1940)

16 thoughts on “#679: The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) by Norman Berrow

  1. Man, my next read is going to have to be a Berrow, isn’t it? I enjoyed The Footprints of Satan so much, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to come back for another. I only have The Bishop’s Sword and The Secret Dancer at the moment, but rest assured my birthday and Christmas wishlists will be stocked with additional titles. Thanks for the pointer towards the post ’46 books, although I also have your initial Best Of list from some comment somewhere to guide me.

    The Three Tiers of Fantasy sounds like loads of fun. The part that really caught my eye was Nick’s comment that it takes a full quarter of the book to explain it all. I’m a sucker for a long explanation, unless it’s delivered by Ellery Queen.

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    • I’d recommend Bishop’s Sword over Secret Dancer, though SD is definitely the better of the two Richard Courtenay books. I wish Berrow’s early stuff had shown the creativity of this later work, but the important thing is that he got there eventually. And I’ve been assured that his last couple of books, where one might reasonably expect some significant decline, contain excellent detection, so it looks like post-WW2 Berrow is the Berrow we’ve all been looking for…

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  2. Aha! This review has helped me decide which Berrow to leave for the last – it will be ‘Footprints of Satan’. 😁 I can safely read ‘Three Tiers’ knowing I’ve still left the best for last.

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  3. I generally liked Three Tiers. The first and the third tier aren’t anything mind-shattering solution-wise, but they have clever and unique setups, and the overall reasoning that leads to their respective solutions is fun all on its own. From what I’ve read, the second seems to be agreed on to be the best, and I’d have to agree, too — you have a vague idea on who’s tricking who, but even when you do, the actual solution still comes off as a surprise. It’s fun! The way everything comes together at the end is pretty clever, too.

    And the fact that there’s three stories always keeps things moving; which is good, since Footprints dragged for me a bit in some parts.

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    • One of the neat things about this is how the reader is able to piece together how the tiers are related — that there are no obvious recurring characters or locations or themes is very smart, and then by the odd hint and description here and there you start to see the shape of it all…and even then I couldn’t tie the first tier in, but then Smith explains why it doesn’t seem to fit and it’s just so damn tidy and clever.

      This is a great book, I’m delighted to have read it. Even made persevering through the likes of One Thrilling Night and Fingers for Ransom worthwhile (though I’ll admit that having read Footprints, Sword, and others before those helped a wee bit, too)!

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      • You have to admire Berrow that he made it matter how the tiers were used and not that they had to have explanations that matched their fantastic presentation, which is in both cases easier said than done. This is what Carr tried to achieve with some of his later, deathless, impossible crime novels, but never nailed it like Berrow did here.

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        • Agreed. I think that, as experienced readers of this sort of thing, there’s a tendency to overlook how difficult this is — not just coming up with the scheme, but justfying the telling of the story to include those elements. Berrow got that more and more as he wore on, I feel, with his setups being so much more attuned to the atmosphere he was creating or the impossibility he wanted to sell. Even The Spaniard’s Thumb…or perhaps that should be especially The Spaniard’s Thumb…which resolves disappointingly has a solidly good reason for why that particular approach is used.

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          • I think I’ve sort of been conditioned not to think too hard about how justifiable the methods used were, since there’s almost an unwritten understanding (at least for me) that, when reading an impossible crime story, whatever the scheme/objective is, there’s always probably an easier and/or less risky way to go about doing it. So whatever the explanation and justification for it is, I always accept beforehand that it has to be a bit unbeliavable to a degree. And while Berrow does justify it, there’s still some areas where I feel like the methods were a bit… too extra, compared to the objectives. But it never really detracts anything for me and, as I said, I don’t really worry too much about justification unless it’s, like, visibly questionable.

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            • Yeah, I think that’s fair — though I’ll admit that I enjoy a good setup, and would prefer one, the truth is that I’m not overly concerned so long as it broadly make sense. The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter is a perfect example of this: for its intended aim, the entire scheme is simply far too byzantine to be worth the effort, but the resulting book is so beautifully bonkers that I’ll happily accept it purely on the grounds of a good time.

              I suppose there’s a limit, though, at either end. Sometimes the effort involved in killing someone in a locked room and pointing the finger of suspicion at your rival who is responsible for the death of your first love when you could just cosh the victim over the head in a dark alley might be fine for a novel, but it at least needs to be addressed or given some reason for the simpler scheme not being used. This is one of those conditions that it’s phenomenally hard to pin down, because I’m sure there’s a five-star review somewhere on this very site or a book that does exactly what I’ve said it shouldn’t above… 🙂

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            • “…you could just cosh the victim over the head in a dark alley…”

              This is more of a personal thing, but time and place is an important factor to me whether, or not, a complicated trick is acceptable. I can believe a murderer in Britain, of the 1930s, going through the whole rigmarole of fabricating an alibi or locked room situation, because the consolation prize of getting caught is a meet-and-greet with the public hangman. Something that’s a lot trickier to pull off today, but also the reason why I find The Gold Deadline such an endearing locked room mystery. Resnicow really tried to convince his reader why a murderer, in 1980s New York City, would go to all that trouble to plant a knife in the victim. Almost as if he was telling the reader, “no, listen to me, you would have done exactly the same.” 😀

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            • the consolation prize of getting caught is a meet-and-greet with the public hangman

              Yeah, this is an excellent point, and one that often goes rather implicitly inferred in a lot of books from the era and so is very easy to overlook.

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  4. I ended up rereading this because of your review. And then I went on and finally got round to reading The Footprints of Satan. And, you know… I think I prefer this one. The pace really doesn’t let up, there’s plenty of well-sketched characters, it’s really just a bunch of fun.
    Footprints by comparison has far less incident, and far more of Smithy being lost in a mental fog, and also far more repetitious rambles about the nature of reality.
    Also I love the explanation section of Three Tiers. It’s possibly even more fun than the build up, which hardly ever happens. More books should definitely pinch the method of explanation used here to spice up their denouments. That said, Tiers can probably only get away with it because of the lighter nature of the crimes.

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    • All fair points. I remember Footprints taking a while to get going, but Berrow had be so immersed in the atmosphere of the people and place that I didn’t mind in the least. Can’t deny that the unrelenting nature of Tiers would compel it to those who like their books to kick on and get going, though — certainly it’s a great example of not needing to ever really slow your book down in order to explain the previous points — just trust that the reader is keeping up with you (or can flip back a few pages to reread if they’re not) and keep going…!

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