I’m in a confusing place with my reading of Norman Berrow. I was sure that the break he took during WW2 would result in his post-1945 work being far superior — and it largely is — but the likes of Words Have Wings (1946), The Singing Room (1948), and The Eleventh Plague (1953) proved too tedious to finish. And now Don’t Jump, Mr. Boland! (1954) is similarly bland and thin, and I have anywhere between three and seven books of his left to read. We expect authors with long careers to fade away towards the end, but Berrow’s inconsistency is bizarre in how unguessable his quality is. At even his second best he’s lithe and fun, so today let’s examine this failure.
Carey Boland, a semi-retired businessman who excites no particular interest in anyone, suddenly finds himself thrust into the headlines when some of his business dealings prove to have some malfeasance about them. Returning from a trip into the nearby city of Sydney one day, he is informed by his neighbour, Mr. Willoughby Dell, of a visitor awaiting him at his bungalow and, after a few muttered words to himself, simply walks away from Mr. Dell and throws himself off a nearby cliff. So far, so mysterious. But then is transpires that Boland failed to land on the rocks below — or adjacent to — the point from which he jumped, and the mystery only deepens. Thankfully, Mr. Dell is being visited by his old friend J. Montague Belmore, the great ham actor who has found tremendous success as the voice of many a radio serial, and Belmore is drawn to investigate the vanishing of Mr. Boland.
Monty — “large as life and twice as artificial” — is perhaps the one saving grace of this novel, though that’s not quite the compliment it sounds. The notion of a man subduing his own personality in order to adopt the mannerisms of whatever role he wishes to project to the public is fun, and Berrow riffs enjoyably on the various personas Monty dons…and the moments that he suppresses even this urge and allows Mr. Belmore to appear unencumbered. However, in the disappearance of Mr. Boland, Monty decides that he must play the Great Detective, cryptic utterances and all, and Berrow’s Great Detective is, well, he’s Sir Henry Merrivale. Every “Humph!” and tick of speech and behaviour, even down to calling himself “the Old Man” and donning an Indian chief’s headdress during a drunken party, is simply H.M. to the letter. And so for most of this book, we get what is essentially fan fiction in the form of mimesis, as Berrow effortlessly shows you why Henry Merrivale only really works in the sorts of plots John Dickson Carr would concoct for him — the real H.M. would have solved this in three minutes without leaving the house — and it becomes distracting, then sort of funny, and then just a trifle dull.
I think this last is achieved because the vanishing of Mr. Boland is only really (at most) half of the plot, the other half concerning the identity of a crime bigwig known only as Genius — a man who would “safely convert a live nuisance into a dead body for you, if you were willing to pay his price”. The reach and nature of Genius’ operations, witnessed via the network through which he reels in the hapless Eddie Stacker, really does not belong alongside the sort of Golden Age game play the Boland vanishing puzzle represents: like a Dashiell Hammett novel introducing a comedy of manners thread in which a boot boy is mistaken for a young Duke, neither is heightened by proximity to the other. The intersection of the two threads is interesting when it occurs, but how Boland and Genius might be involved in each other’s affairs will hardly catch anyone by surprise, and takes such a long time to come to the fore that I thought I’d forgotten it happening before it actually did.
After that, the book sort of meanders around, with various comical forriners and that none-more-Carrian ploy of jollity — here the aforementioned boozy party — which ends in a death, and then Monty seems to happen upon the truth (I was skipping pages by this point) and it’s all sort of done and over. Even the explanation for the vanishing doesn’t really compel, because I just don’t see the timings working out as Monty claims — the gaps between…events would be too large, and it requires someone to be astoundingly fleet of foot. Plus, the Inevitable Romantic Young Couple are bloody cousins again…what is it with mystery novels pairing off cousins? Hell, it even persists to this day, with the Christmas 2021 special episode of Death in Paradise relying on cousins coupling up…seriously, what the hell is wrong with people?!
I take no pleasure in not enjoying Berrow, because he’s written some fabulous, some very good, and even some solidly passable stuff, but even a week after reading this I’m struggling to remember much about it. I think I’ll take a bit of a break from the man and his work, and leave The Lady’s in Danger (1955) and The Claws of the Cougar (1957) until 2023 at the earliest. Then I need to grit my teeth and try again at those abandoned works mentioned above…and then there’s the edited version of Ghost House (1979) that sheer curiosity might actually make my next Berrow because nothing in that book first time around made it seem like the sort of thing that would be trimmed down and reprinted 39 years after its first release. Honestly, the more Norman Berrow I read, the weirder his career gets…
Norman Berrow reviews on The Invisible Event
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