MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: Norman Berrow Stumbles a Bit

“ Pretty boring job this, sir, to tell you the truth. Nothing happens. Nothing looks likely to happen.”

Nobody pays closer attention to what bloggers recommend than other bloggers! I joined the GAD group on Facebook and started my own little operation here for two reasons: to locate others like me in this lonely world who love classic mystery fiction (believe it or not, I seem to be the lone fan in the San Francisco Bay Area) and to find some “new” old authors to read. It has turned out so well, with lots of great conversations and some great discoveries, like Helen McCloy and the shin honkaku school of writing.

My knowledgable buddy JJ over at The Invisible Event is an avid aficionado of the locked room mystery as well as an erudite critic; thus, I was more than willing to give some of his recommendations a try. Unfortunately, things haven’t gone as smoothly as both of us would like. Sure, we both love Carr – that’s an easy thing to do. But I’ve been struggling to understand his enthusiasm over Paul Halter (although I’ve read three of those and plan to give it a couple more tries). And I have had to put aside my one Rupert Penny purchase, as it seems to be practically impenetrable to this reader. (I vow to try, try again at a later date.) I still have to give Max Afford a try. Maybe Hake Talbot . . .?

The happiest surprise came when I picked up my first Norman Berrow novel, The Three Tiers of Fantasy. If you read my review here,  you can see in detail why I enjoyed it so much. In a nutshell, I found Berrow’s writing style to be full of humor, his detective Lancelot Carolus Smith a real charmer, and the situations presented in this tale of impossible goings-on in the small town of Winchingham (pronounced Winch-am) outlandish fun. It hardly mattered that this book lacked a good juicy murder because the crimes that were presented were so fascinating.

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Berrow wrote only five mysteries featuring Smith, and JJ has reviewed two of them, The Bishop’s Sword and The Footprints of Satan. I thought it would be fun to bypass those and come at Berrow in my own way, so for my second outing I chose Inspector Smith’s fourth adventure, Don’t Go Out After Dark. The blurb on the back cover begins: “Once again Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith is caught up in a three-fold mystery involving a family that is being threatened by a mysterious voice – and murder!” The blurb goes on to promise multiple murders, typewritten announcements of warning, beautiful girls in danger, and voodoo!! And the very cool cover on this Ramble House reprint of the 1950 mystery shows an eerie doll with a pin through its heart . . . a promise of supernatural overtones to baffle and delight us. It all sounds great, which is why I’m saddened to report that it . . . isn’t that great.

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The plot centers around James McCullough, the Curator of the Winchingham Botanical Gardens, who lives on the grounds with his wife, two daughters and infant grandson, and of a campaign of terror directed against his beautiful daughter, Elsa. Threatening notes, dead animals, and a voodoo doll all pop up to warn the family that evil doings are afoot. The Gardens is full of interesting places where bad things can happen, including a maze, an island, and a locked summerhouse. And murder finally rears its ugly head, accompanied by an eerie voice in the night that mutters all the things that tend to dissipate a family’s sense of security. Two more deaths follow, along with other warnings and one mildly impossible event before Detective-Inspector Smith figures it all out and brings a cold-blooded killer to justice.

Smith is a likable fellow and Berrow’s writing is still charming here, but this novel was something of a slog for me to wade through. Perhaps I’m being unfair: I guess I was hoping for the same big set pieces I found in the last Berrow, like the disappearing fiancé, the vanishing room, or the street that wasn’t there! Instead, one of the most interesting chapters in this book is a tour through a slipper factory! Most of the time, we are either in the McCullough household, watching everyone fret, or we’re in Smith’s office, where he and his colleagues discuss the meager events over and over and over again! I counted the number of pages in which the police chat over matters at the station: they take up 62 out of 173 pages. I suppose that makes this more of a police procedural than anything else. I just wish these police had had a more interesting case to tackle.

One of the most infuriating things is Berrow’s decision to write out the patois of all his lower class characters. Here’s William Tooley, a gardener employed by the McCullough’s, out for a night at the pub with his friends asking his pal about a mysterious lodger:

“Wot’s the matter, ‘Arry? One of ‘em run orf wiv yer missus, or somefin?”

“Naow. Be more to the point if ‘e ‘ad ‘ave. ‘E was ‘er lodger reely, more’n mine. ‘E never paid no money for more’n a munf. ‘E torked sweet to ‘er an’ she fell for it, an’ then one day ‘e sez ‘e’s ‘ad some good noos. ‘E sez ‘e’s gotter go to the bank for a remittance, ‘e wooden be long, ‘e sez, an’ ‘e’d leave ‘is bag as see-curity. We ain’t seen ‘im since.”

You get the idea. This sort of thing just slows a reader down and really isn’t necessary!

Berrow works with a very small cast here, so the possibilities of a solution are few. I pretty much had this one figured out after the first murder. Sometimes an author tries to make you see things one way but just can’t quite succeed at it. Even a master of misdirection like Agatha Christie had a few clinkers: They Do It With Mirrors comes to mind. Funnily enough, the one “impossible” event clinched matters for me, which left me wading through a lot more talk until I discovered that I had been correct all along. Once the culprit is bagged, we are treated to a thick final chapter where Smith gathers his colleagues together and . . . goes over everything again! Still, if you manage to be fooled by this killer, you might enjoy the whole affair a lot more.

I’m not saying a person should not read this book – there are, after all, only five Smith mysteries available – but after the wild fancies surrounding his first adventure, the small domestic matters of the McCullough family seem awfully dull. I should have listened to JJ and read The Footprints of Satan or The Bishop’s Sword, which I certainly plan to do. Then again, I am trying not to be a copycat, and I long to forge my own path .

Which leaves The Spaniard’s Thumb . . .

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6 thoughts on “MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: Norman Berrow Stumbles a Bit

  1. eek sounds like you took a bullet there for us! I would recommend Max Afford though, as I have read one of his – blood on his hands – I think it was called and it was really good. Think it won my book of the month earlier this year – which reminds me I need to write this month’s book of the month post…

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  2. Ah, well, you can’t win ’em all; appreciate you checking this one out for us, Brad, and I’m likely to read it despite your misgivings if only because I’ve found Berrow such fun in those two I’ve already read and so still have the patience for a potential dud in me (and forewarned is forearmed, after all). Bishop’s Sword had a fair heft of restating the solutions at the end, I seem to remember, as if it’s necessary for the entire thing to be made explicit in case anyone wasn’t paying attention, so maybe it’s something Berrow felt was needed for whatever reason, like a convention he wanted to observe given all the others he was throwing out.

    The pacing might be somethng Berrow was deliberately trying to work on — TFoS came out the same year as this and has a glorious 30-page stretch wherein the villagers follow the impossible footprints for the entire length of their journey, and it’s an absolute joy to simply have that going on and nothing else, to soak up the minutiae without being distracted by convoluted addenda. I wonder if he was toying with spinning details out of very little activity, perhaps? Dunno, not read this, but I look forward to reading it and comparing my assessment to your own.

    The Spaniard’s Thumb — concerning people apparrently being squashed by a gigantic, sentient thumb unattached to any earthly body — is already winging its way to me because it sounds completely and utterly bonkers and I’m fairly sure only Norman Berrow could pull it off.

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  3. I look forward to hearing what you make of DGOAD. It’s definitely a “no-frills” domestic mystery, with less going on than I would have liked (particularly since I seem to have sussed out the truth all too quickly), but I like a lot of the dialogue, particularly the banter between Smith and Poynter, his assistant. Despite the “sure things” you have reviewed, I think I might have to race you to The Spaniard’s Thumb. It sounds ridiculous!

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  4. Oh dear, it sounds like you didn’t have a good time with ‘Don’t Go out after Dark’. I was looking forward to your review as I read it recently, and couldn’t find much written about it online. I think it would be safe to say that I liked it more than you did, as I was surprised by the ending: I did entertain, at certain junctures, the possibility that the culprit(s) was responsible, but I thought the way the novel was staged did largely manage to keep my gaze looking in other directions. I guess certain developments in the second half of the novel did make me wonder again, but in general the solution did take me by surprise.

    I agree with you on the main body of the novel, which I found somewhat awkward – in that I wasn’t sure where the novel was heading or what it wanted to achieve. But I was happy with the ending and I thought the success of the novel largely hinged on its eventual twist. For me, the ending was reminiscent of something Agatha Christie would do. Since you could foresee the resolution, I can understand your disenchantment with the novel.

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    1. Jonathan, I love to match wits with the author, but more than that I LOVE to be fooled! Christie fooled me most of the time; so did Carr and Queen. The few times I did guess an ending turned out to be for books that were never my favorites! I do get what you mean about the Christie feeling. All the things we need to know about this character are right out in the open, and if you don’t read them correctly but allow natural prejudices to come into play, you are going to feel bamboozled in the end. I just seemed to read this person one way, so I understood that some of what was meant to misdirect us in the end was part of the trap to catch a killer. I didn’t know the motive, but then NOBODY could have figured that out (which is so UN-Christie as it didn’t play fair in the least!) I thought it had to do with the jewels.

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