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.
Norman Berrow seems to flourish under the eye of the eldritch. Impossible hoof-marks in the snow mystery The Footprints of Satan (1950) is widely seen — correctly, in my opinion and experience to date — as his strongest work, and Ghost House (1940) is another atmosphere-drenched invocation of supernatural terror. Evidently Berrow himself was either extremely taken with the book or extremely disappointed in it, since he rewrote some of the plot, changed the names of the characters, and reissued the book in 1979. I’ll get to v2.0 last of all, since I’m now reading Berrow chronologically, but for now let’s look at the original.
Bill Hamilton, having previously chased hashish smugglers and a werewolf (separately) around Spain, now finds himself in his homestead of Gibraltar contending with a “London particular” fog, three murdered men hanging from the rafters of an abandoned storehouse, and a mysteriously faceless nun intent on causing all manner of havoc. Yes, The Terror in the Fog (1938) is quite unmistakably a Norman Berrow novel — this mixture of superstition and cold, hard murder is Berrow’s bailiwick, and here are glimpses of the very fine novels he would go on to produce — and from early on it feels by far the most confident of his career to this point.
The detective novel often requests that you, the reader, swallow some fairly difficult concepts in order to fully engage with it — that someone can organically devise the methods of murder and misdirection depicted within, for instance, or that the mechanical solutions sometimes put froward do actually work in the manner described. However, the delightfully creative Norman Berrow, in his werewolf-on-the-prowl novel It Howls at Night (1937), demands of you the greatest degree of forbearance I’ve yet encountered, a hurdle some may struggle to overcome, in requiring you to believe that a man would actually go by the name of ‘Pongo Slazenger’.
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.