If you’re reading this in the Southern Hemisphere — or in the year 2047, when global warming has reduced the planet to a scorched wasteland — then the raft of snow-bound mysteries reviewed in the run-up to Christmas might seem a little odd. Nevertheless, this snowswept tale of impossible murder, which came recommended by Tom Mead, has been reserved for this precise season so that its twofold chills — physical and atmospheric — might be better appreciated. Gerald Verner wrote so much that it would be easy to believe that quality wasn’t high on his agenda, but he does good work in They Walk in Darkness (1947) even if the overall edifice doesn’t quite live up to its promise.
Visiting a relative in the East Anglian hamlet of Fendyke St. Mary, author Peter Chard and his wife Ann brave the snowdrifts which have mired the town only to discover four dead bodies locked in a derelict cottage known locally as Witch’s House. There’s a sniff of Death in Five Boxes (1938) by Carter Dickson about the scene, with the bodies all seated around a table set for a meal…and a fifth place standing ominously empty at its head. When the local police determine that the snowy footprints approaching the house all belong to the four people inside, there’s the small difficulty of how someone could have locked the door and departed without leaving any tracks themselves…a mystery that only deepens when one local teenager claims to have seen the devil leaving the premises at about the time the murders took place.
There’s something quite pleasing about the simplicity of that setup, recalling for this reader — although historically anticipating, even down to a rejected solution — The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow. However, this is not the only malfeasance to have befallen the hamlet, as over the last eighteen months first several lambs and then five children have been stolen and later found with their throats slit. It being unlikely that two murderous conspiracies could exist independently in so sparsely-populated a region, the simple matter of establishing what’s going on and who is responsible seems likely to account for all the events. So Chard, featuring here in his second and final case, attaches himself to the less-than-stellar local police to dig to the bottom of the matter.
This setup, reminiscent also of The Vampire Tree (1996, tr. 2016) by Paul Halter, has about it plenty of potential, and Verner writes some excellent sentences, filling his “problem so weird and extraordinary, so completely inexplicable, that it was more like the wild imaginings of a nightmare than anything real” with delightful character touches that really fill out the denizens of his village. It’s clear that the four murdered adults were part of a faster set with “[p]lenty of money, nothing to do, and endlessly seeking some new way of having a good time”, but it’s also clear that their self-aggrandising ways don’t go over very well in East Anglia:
“She’s very smart, though, ain’t she?” said the maid. “An’ ’er hair’s lovely…”
Mrs. Bossom sniffed. It was an expressive sniff. It destroyed the loveliness of Miss Bennett’s hair more effectively than a hundred words could have done.
Verner is at this most successful in how he limns the various impressions given by the locals, from a wealthy man out of place among his opulence “like finding the dustman stretched on a settee in the drawing room, reading the newspaper”, to a doctor’s recital of medical evidence “stopp[ing] abruptly, like a clock that had suddenly run down”, via the “ghastly” Miss Flitterwyke behaving “rather like an Egyptian mummy trying to be coy”, and a housekeeper “whose face was so wrinkled that it looked like the map of some strange country”, the most successful parts of this book are the little moments which inform the background rather than the central plot itself. Verner seems to be having the most fun at the expense of the local police…
Colonel Shoredust was tired and a little irritable. Superintendent Odds was tired and more than a little irritable. Sergeant Quilt was tired and more irritable than either of his superiors, though his position prevented him from showing it as much as they did.
…who find themselves dealing with a situation which “required to be handled with imagination and brains, and Shoredust was evidently quite devoid of the former, and only very sparingly supplied with the latter”, and it’s only a shame that in telling how the affair is handled Verner does such a fourth-rate job: lots of dull conversations, a few hints that some clues might have been spotted without declaration, and what little clewing is declared being subject to such appalling leaps in reasoning that it’s almost like the characters somehow know the intended direction of the narrative they’re in. It’s also a surprisingly bereft of atmosphere, with Chard being told that “the whole district is absolutely reeking with superstition” rather than this being borne out in any way except that everyone is only too happy to just nod and accept that the devil — or, uhm, the Black Man, as everyone keeps calling him — is of course responsible. No biggie.
Some frankly astounding moments aside — like when a Scotland Yard officer suggests that they leave a local child tethered as bait for the killer — things progress in the dullest manner imaginable, with the involvement of the corpses in a coven failing to come as a surprise partly because of how badly Verner fumbles that revelation and partly because when you open the book you’re told that Part 3 is called ‘The Coven’. I’m also deeply uncomfortable with how Verner writes about “village idiot” Twist (“They are usually quite happy — far happier than anyone with a normal intellect. But it seems rather sad, I think — a grown man, or woman, with the mind of a child.”) and casually tosses out the awful refrain of ‘the lower classes wouldn’t know what to with wealth if they got it’ which makes his central duo appear like the most pompous people imaginable:
“For instance, take a hundred people from a slum in the East End and transport them to clean and lovely surroundings and watch the result. In ninety-nine cases they will instantly, and energetically, proceed to try and reproduce the squalor and ugliness of the slum they came from…”
“Simply because they’ve never been taught to appreciate anything better,” retorted Ann.
That the solution to the impossibility comes almost out of nowhere and completely underwhelms, then, is far from the book’s biggest problem, and I’m not sure what to make of Verner’s sense of justice in the finale. One can’t deny his intent in treating most of his subject matter seriously by invoking the likes of George Burroughs and Abbé Guibourg, and this sparkles with occasional historical gems — a woman’s handbag containing “the usual flapjack”, for instance, or that “gin and it” is short for “gin and Italian” — and manages to work “xanthomelanous” into the text without breaking a wrist, but what surrounds this is, incredibly, just very difficult to engage with. I skipped liberally in the final third, and can’t claim to worry about what I might have missed as the threads came together, because the narrative failed to play with its detective trappings or its spooky eeriness in a manner that captured the attention or rewarded close reading.
Verner, in the two-and-a-half books I’ve read by him now, has been at best slightly diverting, but I think I’ll explore others in far greater depth before feeling compelled to return to him. Weird to have so much to say about a book that left me feeling so ambivalent, but that feels like a fair summary of the book overall; it would be easy to dismiss this as tosh, but wouldn’t do justice to the success it enjoys. Whatever successes it has to its credit, however, are not significant enough to make a repeat visit to Verner likely any time soon.
John @ Pretty Sinister: Verner seems to lack the confidence to play fair with his readers. He’ll hide a couple of aces up his sleeve but then let one drop out onto the table ineptly. Too much detection happens offstage or is described so obliquely that the reader is unclear what has been discovered. The clues are a mix of the utterly absent or completely obvious. When the solution to the impossible crime comes many readers may be disappointed by its familiarity in the impossible crime subgenre, a gimmick used almost as frequently as knife throwing.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The no-footprint-in-the-snow is, as mentioned above, hardly a classic of its kind and the second half of the book is written in the lurid style of the sensational, pulpy occult thrillers littered with adjectives (beastly, blasphemous, diabolically, horrible, etc), but the murderer and motive made up for a lot. I thought the vigilante mob scenes and the Biblical event that ravaged the region towards the end was a nice touch to the story.