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 The superb introduction from Francis M. Nevins explains how and why this was unpublished in Keeler’s lifetime and only came into public being through Keelerite Fender Tucker’s Ramble House imprint in 2005.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.
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.
There is a lot to be said for not letting your heroes grow up. From Jonathan Creek’s middle-aged ennui to the doddery old bastard many authors have tried to tell us Sherlock Holmes became, the majority of attempts to drag these fictional wonders into ‘reality’ typically turn in a strong argument in favour of youthful literary immortality. I already know scores of middle-aged men who regret their life choices; I do not know any impossible crime-solving magician’s assistants who live in windmills — that’s why I seek escape in fiction. If want to watch a man slowly disintegrate under his own self-loathing, there are plenty of mirrors in my house.
Someone who venerates plot to the extent I do should not have enjoyed this book as much as I did. There’s a Nancy Drew-esque dollop of convenience at every turn, and a series of coincidences and sudden realisations that just happen to tie these actions together far more tightly than seems possible at first glance…and I should abominate such quick answers. But, holy hell, it’s also superbly written, and rich in the pulp sensibilities that resulted in me crowning Jim Thompson one of the four most important male crime writers of all time. Classicaly constructed it isn’t, but gloriously entertaining it certainly is.
If there’s one setback to the profligacy of quality GAD blogs now found online, it’s that very little in my reading gets to take me by surprise any more. Something good tends to get shouted about (this is, after all, why we’re here) and then others buy it and shout or grumble as they see fit…but we’ve gone in with a ringing endorsement in our ears beforehand. I’m not complaining, it’s a lovely problem to have — and I contribute to this as much as anyone — but I was moved to reflect on picking this for review that it’s one book on my TBR that I knew nothing about. So now allow me to pre-prejudice the experience for the rest of you…
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.
A man prone to bouts of lunacy escapes in unusual circumstances from the private sanatorium where he is a resident, and shortly thereafter a series of murders are committed, the left shoe removed from each victim…well, you join the dots. And yet, can it really be that simple? Ordinary GAD rules say no, but this is Rupert Penny, puzzle-maker par excellence, and thus such easy prehension could be both a feint and the actual intended explanation. So Scotland Yard’s Chief-Inspector Edward Beale is dispatched and brings amateur hanger-on Tony Purdon and Sergeant ‘Horsey’ Matthews with him, a crime-solving triumvirate likely to have even Inspector Joseph French quailing jealously at their ability to unpick complex schemes.