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.
I’ve read a lot of comics in my time, I spend many hours online enthusiastically contributing to discussions about a moderately obscure area of popular culture — hell, I even wear glasses. I must, therefore, be a nerd. I mean, sure, I don’t own a single t-shirt emblazoned with some hilarious-but-obscure quote or image, but that’s mainly because the kinds of things I’d put on a t-shirt — “Hairy Aaron!” or, say, a decal of Gideon Fell above the legend Don’t irritate a man who knows 142 ways to kill you without being the same room — no-one else wants on a t-shirt and so they’re not available to buy.
Norman Berrow writes great policemen. His other characters are very good — he has Agatha Christie’s ability to give you an archetype plus enough to be quietly, subtly powerful — but his policemen are superb. After reading three later Berrows featuring Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith and his lackeys, I’m leaping back to Berrow’s second novel here, and well before the halfway point I was lamenting the fact that this seems to be the only case calling on Superintendent Mellish, Inspector Sennet, and the delightfully earnest Constable Ensor. They take a standard Country House Mystery and transform it through their cheek, cleverness, and camaraderie into something that feels like the start of a very promising career indeed. Alas, not to be.
We should be thankful that Norman Berrow left behind him such wonderful novels as these that make it almost possible to get a glimpse into the workings of his mind. I mean, who else would predicate a novel on the grounds of a giant disembodied thumb vengefully crushing to death anyone who ventures into its lair? It’s a setup too barmy for John Dickson Carr’s fertile impossibilities, too outré for the straight-laced world of Agatha Christie, Miles Burton, Christianna Brand, and their ilk, and doesn’t have enough train journeys for Freeman Wills Crofts. It’s too comedic and explicit for the standard horror get-up of M.R. James or those who followed him…honestly, had Berrow not written this there’s really no-one else who could have.
It’s doubtless a result of the generation I’m from that when I think about fictional murderers wearing distinctive costumes the first jump my mind makes is to the Ghostface killers of Wes Craven’s Scream films. If you’re a little older than me, you may go for Freddy Krueger’s striped jumper, and if you’re younger than me I have no idea what you might pick because I have lost track of whatever passes for popular culture these days, but for me it’s Ghostface.
Lacking as I do the talent to devise my own fictional impossible crime and solution, I take refuge in those authors who have done it time and again to such success. The Footprints of Satan, my second Norman Berrow novel after the delightful surprise of The Bishop’s Sword, goes one even better: far from simply devising his own impossibility, he takes an unexplained one from real life, turns it to his own fictional purposes and then explains it away beautifully. Both the foreword and the plot here make reference to an incident from 1855 and reported in no less august a publication than The Times in which a trail of hoof-marks appeared in the snow as if from a cloven-footed creature walking on its hind legs.