Aaaah, Norman Berrow. Such highs, such lows, so much middle ground. I can’t think of anyone else who leaves me on such a knife-edge: with a few adjustments here and there Berrow could well have written some genre classics, and it’s often an agonising fascination waiting to see which way the book falls. So now we’re back at the very beginning with his first novel The Smokers of Hashish (1934), decidedly more adventure than detection, where he applies his chameleonic tendencies to some (ahem) intrigue in Tangier. As you may expect from a book of this era with this title, the result is pulpy fun, though with two neat moments to distinguish it.
You can tell it’s been a tough couple of weeks, because I’ve reverted to my reading Happy Place — Carter Dickson, Max Afford, and now Norman Berrow (there was a traumatic Ngaio Marsh experience in there, too, but the less said about that the better). My entirely non-chronological sampling of this delightful Kiwi — probably the most purely joyous GAD author I read — continues apace, since this is the preceding title to Murder in the Melody (1940), the last Berrow I read…no, I have no idea why I’m doing it like this. I’ll make sure his debut The Smokers of Hashish (1934) is the next Berrow I pick up. Just bear with me, eh? It’s been a tough couple of weeks.
If you’ve been paying attention, especially to my comments left both here and elsewhere, you’ll be aware that my typing is rather famously variable. 90% of the time I’m good, but that other 10% — man, some errors there are. Writing something recently, I made reference to the novel Five Little Pugs by Agatha Christie and then — catching myself in time to correct it — I had a thought…
As I wend my merry way through the works of Norman Berrow — this is the seventh book of his I’ve read, thanks to the wonderful efforts of Ramble House in republishing his entire catalogue — I’m forced into a certain awareness: I really like his style of mystery, even though they fall slightly below the standard I’d typically expect. His characters are fun, his situations inventive, he doesn’t bog you down in mucilaginous prose, and the fact that he jumped between five different (albeit short) series plus standalones in his career invited a certain variation in his approaches that stops things getting samey. If the plots occasionally fall short of full brilliance…I can live with that. But it makes things a little tricky from a reviewing perspective.
Sometimes I think it is possible to become jaded from reading too much of the same type of book. I signed up to this GAD blogging lark on my own initiative, and it’s the genre I prefer to read, but the need to get in at least one, and ideally two, a week to meet my own self-imposed deadlines can lead at times to a little disaffection creeping in. Thankfully, via the exemplary work of Fender Tucker’s Ramble House imprint, I have discovered the books of Norman Berrow, and so if my will be wandering I have the option of returning to the lightness and joy of his entertaining milieu. He’s not a plotter par excellence, but I find these books fun in a way that obviates my usual requirements in this direction. Prose before pose, dudes.
In a week that saw me start and quit three books in a row, it was a relief to open Norman Berrow’s third novel and be put immediately at ease by his nimble capturing of the pre-show backstage goings-on at the latest, most fashionable theatre in London. From the music described as “…a shamelessly stolen conglomeration of Mexican airs, assembled in Tin-Pan Alley, shipped to Europe, and played with astonishing variations” to the beautiful summation of leading lady Lili La Paz as “a miracle to watch; and hell to live with”, it’s the sort of opening salvo that reminds me why I return time and again to Berrow and his slightly disappointing impossibilities (the man does love a secret passage): simply put, he writes glorious prose.