I posited before that Norman Berrow’s career was neatly bisected by the Second World War — those novels he wrote before it being light, sometimes a little tedious, and generally easily dismissed, and those coming after possessed of better plotting, better characterisation, better everything. Then I encountered two post-war Berrow books in a row — Words Have Wings (1946) and The Singing Room (1948), both featuring the characters Michael and Fleur Revel — which left me disinterested and to date remain unfinished. Does Don’t Go Out After Dark (1950), the last of the usually excellent Lancelot Carolus Smith novels I have to read, correct this? Thankfully, yes.
We are again in Winchingham, the town that, much like Midsomer or Saint Marie, expands to include new features as the books require them — and so we find a botanical gardens appended and Mr. James McCullough in charge of maintaining them. A no nonsense Scot “whose manner of saying grace, according to his irreverent daughters, was to announce sternly that he would declare a blessing, introduce the food and drink to the gathered assemblage, and then give God a verbal receipt for it”, McCullough will find himself — and especially one of those irreverent daughters, the comely Elsa — at the centre of a campaign of terrorisation that defies explanation. It begins with a prowler spied in the Gardens after closing, escalates to type-written notes of nebulous and loosely-phrased warnings, spirals into voodoo manikins found on the island in the duck pond that depicts the Gardens in miniature, and, of course, reaches its screaming pitch with murder.
Enter Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith, one of my favourite GAD policemen — I’m going to miss him, I really am — who is both disarmingly irreverent himself (“It’s only natural that men will fall for you,” he tells Elsa at one point. “Me, I can’t — my wife wouldn’t approve. Besides, policemen are supposed to be sexless — like the angels…”) and keenly aware of the seriousness of the situation and the infuriatingly formless danger posed to someone:
Vaguely and irrationally he felt that it was too spectacular and inexplicable; that there was something really evil and monstrous about it, something esoteric, something foreign to this world of sense and reason — for even wickedness acts on its own conception of sense and reason. He felt that if he ever did succeed in finding an answer to the riddle…the answer itself would be another riddle.
What Berrow does brilliantly here is make the threat sinister and the jeopardy, while vague, real. We can say categorically that something is wrong and that someone seems to be at risk of losing their life, but time and again the what and the who shift so that the cause — witchcraft is suggested by the manikin, with the scent of sulphur rising neatly out of Berrow’s threatening implications — and the subject never come into view together. It’s brilliantly wrought, and contains some magnificent surprises (I laughed in pure delight at one development) with the “stark ruddy chaos” Smith is trying to navigate cleanly and clearly told and yet still defying comprehension. Where Smith’s other cases had a form or focus, the sheer bloody-minded intangibility of this one, with its inherent contradictions that give it form but also rob it of all apparent reason, poses a new problem that must obviously be approached in new ways. It might have been a vexing read on account of this, but I love seeing authors try something new…and new this certainly is.
It helps, too, that at various stages Smith, his superiors, and his man-of-all-trades Sergeant Bill Poynter gather together for various councils to hash out the apparent patterns. In a way, this is perhaps the most outright procedural book of Berrow’s I’ve read: the various difficulties of the appearances of events picked over, the actions and responses to those actions combed through, Poynter offering various forensic examinations and explanations of the evidence they accrue, and the frankly masterful laying out of the two prongs of attack in chapter 9. And, perhaps most pleasingly of all, at the end of all this clarity Smith is more than willing to admit he’s baffled while also gently reproving his junior officer for the sort of lazy thinking that would, yes, make things easier but not necessarily be correct (and, pleasingly, Poynter goes on to return to favour to Smith later on). Berrow’s policemen — Smith and his bunch, plus Richard Courtenay in his two earlier appearances — are always a delight.
Where those two books I gave up on became far too twee and light for their own good, it’s perhaps the seriousness of the professional investigator that gives these narratives a firm and steady grounding so that when the inevitable Berrowisms creep in to lighten things the narrative doesn’t float away under the propulsion of its own whimsy. This would be grim stuff with some alleviation, and the moments sprinkled throughout — shopping as “a loose term indicating, where the female of the species is concerned, fitful spasms of window-gazing and loitering on enclosed premises”, the selection of photos arrayed for identifying a suspect, a telephone engineer’s quoting of ‘Shakespeare’ to check the quality of a connection — lighten the darkness without seeming to chuff at it. Berrow is no mere tonal gadabout, and the simple leavening of the sombre mood here shows brilliant judgement and control.
We’re late in GAD, and arguably out of the Golden Age altogether, but the style of novel we have here falls classically into the earlier bracket, which makes its open dismissal of religion by one character (“…just propaganda to keep the parsons in a soft job; men who don’t like the idea of work and would rather kid along a lot of credulous old women of both sexes!”) and the unadorned contemplation of the state of mind one must be in to commit suicide surprising inclusions. These moments, plus the — plot-relevant, I promise — one where Smith discusses how difficult it is to kill a cat (“It knows death is coming and it struggles like a mad thing. It uses teeth and claws, and it writhes and twists under your hand like a snake.”) feel like the inclusions of a later era — you wouldn’t get this in the 1930s, I suggest — but fit the mood, and stood out to me only because I spend so much time dwelling on this sort of content.
The solution when it comes is both surprising and inevitable, if not exactly fairly clued (you could get the general gist, and I maintain that there are a couple of clues so subtle that Berrow himself forgot to point them out, but one small specific in particular comes out of nowhere). The summary and explanation of the final chapter is shot through with the displeasure Smith seems to feel at the conclusion of all his cases, knowing that lives have been destroyed and the motives always break down to small, grubby things. All Smith’s cases have something of the eldritch about them — mystics, magic, monsters, a giant murderous thumb — and Berrow really does deserve credit for how neatly he fits the unlikely into a small community, always knowing that base intent will be behind it somewhere.
And so, goodbye to Lancelot Carolus Smith. These five books are the best of Berrow’s work that I’ve read, and all come highly recommended — wonderful small town mysteries with a great deal of charm, bafflement, intelligence, and surprise, and with a thoroughly human and compassionate policeman at their centre. One presumes that the weirdness continued in Winchingham after Berrow stopped writing about Smith, and I hope that he eventually got to enjoy the peaceful retirement he fully deserved. Were his memoirs ever to emerge, they’d no doubt make equally fascinating reading…
Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: Smith is a likable fellow and Berrow’s writing is still charming here, but this novel was something of a slog for me to wade through. Perhaps I’m being unfair: I guess I was hoping for the same big set pieces I found in the last Berrow, like the disappearing fiancé, the vanishing room, or the street that wasn’t there! Instead, one of the most interesting chapters in this book is a tour through a slipper factory! Most of the time, we are either in the McCullough household, watching everyone fret, or we’re in Smith’s office, where he and his colleagues discuss the meager events over and over and over again! I counted the number of pages in which the police chat over matters at the station: they take up 62 out of 173 pages. I suppose that makes this more of a police procedural than anything else. I just wish these police had had a more interesting case to tackle.
Norman Berrow reviews on The Invisible Event
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Featuring Michael & Fleur Revel:
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