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’.
It comes to us all in the end: the moment that a prolific, tantalisingly-just-about-available author we’ve been low-key enjoying without ever really loving suddenly turns in an utter duffer of a book. It happened with the last Lorac I read — Slippery Staircase (1938) — and while Black Beadle (1939) doesn’t quite plow the same ignominious farrow, it’s not exactly leaps and bounds better. And yet Edith Rivett’s take on the standard GAD milieu is so atypical that while she’ll miss the mark on a few occasions, I don’t believe she’ll have written anything without any merit whatsoever. This is still a substandard effort, but with enough wrinkles to warrant attention.
I’m on a bit of a Ramble House kick at the moment: Rupert Penny, Norman Berrow, Walter S. Masterman, with E.C.R. Lorac coming soon. The Perjured Alibi (1935) is my third Masterman title to date, and I’d intended this to be where I’d make the decision whether or not to persevere with him. But, well, I have a copy of Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (1991) now and that’s got me thinking that I should at least give the remaining couple of impossibilities a go — especially as it turns out Ramble House have recently republished his debut The Wrong Letter (1926), which I’ve been after for a while. So it would be churlish to stop here…
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.
I consider Rupert Penny to be in the front rank of GAD authors I have stumbled over, and yet have somehow gone a full year without reading anything by him. So let’s get things rolling with the very un-Pennyian structuring trick that’s now de rigeur in modern crime fiction — Two Seemingly Independent Threads That Shockingly Turn Out To Be Linked: the vanishing of a possibly-dead lodger from her room and the near-simultaneous disappearance of a young woman following a financial demand from an ex-lover to not reveal compromising letters she sent him. Seriously, where would blackmailers be without the Royal Mail?
Emboldened by the experience of The Rynox Mystery (1930) by Philip MacDonald from last week — an author with whom I started poorly and have come to really enjoy — I turn to Harry Stephen Keeler. The only other Keeler I’ve read to date was…fine, and I’ve been admittedly reluctant to begin this despite its locked room murder being why I bought it in the first place. The superb introduction from Francis M. Nevins explains how and why this was unpublished in Keeler’s lifetime and only came into public being through Keelerite Fender Tucker’s Ramble House imprint in 2005. As you gather from my rating, I’m of the opinion the public would’ve coped perfectly fine without it.