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…
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.
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.
Norman Berrow reviews — all books available from Ramble House — on The Invisible Event: