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.
We tend to take it for granted that authors like John Dickson Carr and John Rhode created noms de plume effectively to enable them to produce double the amount of their usual fiction. Central character names aside, Rhode’s works don’t really differ from ‘Miles Burton’s nor Carr’s from that of ‘Carter Dickson’. You’d think they’d want a day off every now and then (and their critics might suggest they could have used one). One would expect a new identity to be quite freeing — see Agatha Christie occasionally escaping into the social concerns of ‘Mary Westmacott’, or Anthony Berkeley rearranging his palette as ‘Francis Iles’ — a chance to experiment in private, as it were.
When Xavier brought to my attention that Lee Child is sharing the writing of his best-selling Jack Reacher series to his brother before handing it over in due course, I saw it as the universe nudging me towards a filial co-authoring job residing in my own TBR, The Snark Was a Boojum (1957/2015) by Gerald and Chris Verner.
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.
I very nearly paid a king’s ransom for a secondhand copy of Walter S. Masterman’s debut The Wrong Letter (1926) a couple of years ago, since it was rare as rocking-horse teeth (wait, those are not rare…) and featured on Roland Lacourbe’s “100 Books for a Locked Room Library” list (or, well, the supplemental list of fourteen supposedly excellent impossible crime novels for which there were no French translations, at least). Then, in 2018, Ramble House made it easily available for much more sensible money, and here we are. More power to their elbow, frankly, as this is the strongest Masterman I’ve read, and has encouraged me to not write him off just yet.
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.
This title had stuck in my memory from perusing Ramble House’s stable, and when I saw it listed in Locked Room Murders (2nd ed., 1992) — having not previously realised it was an impossible crime — I snapped it up. Then it cropped up in the comments of a post at Brad’s place and it was as if the stars had aligned. The dedication to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler “with the author’s feeling that in distance there is security” hints that you’re not getting the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, and the opening line introducing “Publius Manlius Scribo, star reporter and sports columnist on the Evening Tiber” in 44 B.C., heavily implies that you’re clearly not getting a slavishly faithful historical epic, either.
Thanks to the recent reprints by Ramble House, a few years ago I discovered the Chief Inspector Edward Beale books written by Ernest Thornett under the nom de plume Rupert Penny. Puzzle-dense and complex beyond belief, they were a joy to my pattern-obsessed brain and, having now read all eight of them, my mind immediately moves to the concept of placing them in a hierarchy.
The plan for April, since I was off gallivanting around during March and got virtually no reading at all done, had been to dig through some obscure books on my TBR and bring to light titles perhaps unjustly forgotten. But one, two, three duds passed in a row, and so instead I leap into the welcoming arms of Rupert Penny. Cue the swift vanishing of a box of chocolates and a bottle of potassium cyanide at Anstey Court boarding school, and the roping in of Chief Inspector Edward Beale by Assistant Commissioner Sir Francis Barton — whose son is a pupil — to figure out what malice, if any, is behind it all.
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’.