This is where it all began: struck by my fellow blogger JJ’s (he of The Invisible Event) love of the impossible crime, I made a vow here to tackle four authors in his honor. John Dickson Carr, the master, is someone with whom I have long been acquainted, and I recently tackled two of his novels that had somehow eluded me: The Three Coffins (my “meh” review is here) and He Who Whispers (loved it here).
I moved next to the French disciple of Carr, Paul Halter, and read one of his earliest novels, The Fourth Door. Alas, I found the plot hard to swallow and the characters as flimsy as papier mache. I turned subsequently to Rupert Penny’s Policeman’s Evidence. Sadly, I have put that book aside until I can figure out how to swallow it. (Small doses? With a scotch in hand? I’m open to suggestions!)
Which leaves Norman Berrow. As luck would have it, I just received in the mail my first ever copy of CADS, that wonderful compilation of essays about mystery fiction that Geoff Bradley puts together, and this volume contains an essay about Berrow by his step-granddaughter, Prue Mercer.
Norman Berrow was a contemporary of Ngaio Marsh and, like her, hailed from New Zealand. He published twenty novels of crime fiction in his lifetime. Like Marsh, Berrow set most of his work in England, and I found it interesting to read that, due to the relatively small, non-literate New Zealand population, Berrow found no fame at home yet was well-liked for a time in Great Britain. Then, like so many Golden Age authors, he faded into the mists of time until the publishers at Ramble House re-issued his entire output in paperbacks with very snazzy covers.
Another interesting thing about Berrow was that, aside from a half dozen non-series novels that spanned his career, he wrote about a number of different sleuths and, rather than hop from one detective to another (like Christie did with Poirot and Miss Marple), Berrow essentially left one hero for another, never to return. From 1947 to 1950, he wrote five mysteries featuring Lancelot Carolus Smith, a Detective-Inspector serving in the town of Winchingham (pronounced Winch-am) where extremely odd things tend to happen. JJ wrote a very positive review here of the last Smith novel, The Footprints of Satan. I thought I would read and review the first novel featuring Smith, one with the provocative title, The Three Tiers of Fantasy.
Okay, that marked 431 words of this entry, and now I’m stuck! For, like JJ before me, I truly don’t know how much I should tell you about Three Tiers that wouldn’t spoil it for you. One of the joys of Berrow’s plotting is that you don’t always know where he’s going. So here’s the real mystery: can one loudmouth blogger entreat you to read this novel without giving the whole game away?
Well, first of all: this novel is a lot of fun to read! Berrow’s style is literate yet easy, full of humor, and just strong enough on the niceties of novel-writing – pace, characterization and, particularly, setting – to complement without interfering with the puzzle. Here’s a description of the first victim:
“Miss Janet Soames lived with her bachelor brother in a small but comfortable bungalow in the hamlet of Fleeting, which is some fifteen miles from Winchingham and is a great place for golf. Janet was a tremulous, fluttering sort of woman, negatively pretty but no longer young; in fact she had arrived at that age when it rather rankled to know herself invariably described as ‘that nice woman, the doctor’s sister.’ For it is open to question whether even the most angelic of women relish being constantly dubbed ‘nice’ by potential suitors who unaccountably pass them by: there are times when they would prefer to be considered desirable.”
Janet finally meets the man of her dreams, a young actor named Philip Strong, Before she has time to question why such a handsome fellow would be so enamored of her, he proposes marriage and whisks her off to a lovely townhouse in Winchingham, the home of a friend, Jimmy Melrose, who has spent a lifetime dabbling in the occult. There, to Janet’s horror, Philip disappears forever. What’s more, it turns out that Philip Strong has been dead for seven years. And he might be mad because his ghost wreaks havoc on Melrose’s “séance room.” To make matters even worse, Philip seems to have the consistency of a ghost. Not one neighbor, nor the cab driver who drove her from the train station to Melrose’s house, nor Melrose’s butler Porter, claims to have seen Philip in Janet’s presence! To all intents and purposes, Janet has been traveling alone!!
And that’s just “Tier One” of the fantasy! There follow two more mysteries, (Tiers Two and Three), each one larger in scale and more baffling than the preceding one. Each time, the events fall into the lap of Inspector Smith, who doubts his friend Jimmy Melrose’s gleeful insistence that occult forces are coming into play throughout the village. Naturally, the truth is firmly grounded in reality (I’m not spoiling anything here – it says so on the back cover!), and Lancelot Smith is determined to expose the guilty parties and restore sanity to the town. He does so with zeal and great charm, and after the sorrows wreaked on Miss Soames and the other victims, I enjoyed watching Smith wipe the smirks off the criminals’ faces very much!
That said, if you are looking for a juicy murder mystery, perhaps you should try another of Berrow’s books, for the only murder you will find here occurred in 1597. (Thanks to some nifty time-travelling, we do get to see this bloody crime re-enacted.) No, this is a different kind of crime story, full of puzzles that are ultimately explained and criminals who are finally unmasked. I guess you could label this more of a “caper” with plenty of impossible crime elements to enthrall you. It tends toward the whimsical (Prue Mercer, in her article, calls the Smith stories “almost farce”), but it does have its share of clever fair play stuff. I particularly loved the whole revelation of the Tier Two mystery. That one, I thought, was particularly fine.
Based on this experience, as well as JJ’s reviews of two other Berrow novels, I definitely plan on reading the four other mysteries featuring Smith. I feel sure that I will find murders there! I’d be interested in what others think of him, particularly of the other series sleuths. I also recommend that you purchase the CADS magazine. The articles contained therein cover a multitude of fascinating subjects. Shout-out to Kate Jackson for her article in this month’s issue on “Melodrama and Sherlock Holmes.” It was both scholarly and fun to read!
Who next to tackle on my locked room adventures? Max Afford? I’m open to suggestions!