Based on the enormous success of last month’s discussion topic – death by poison – the Tuesday Night Bloggers convened and decided to dedicate August to yet another popular murder method: murder by giant thumb. This was immediately followed by an 8 -1 decision to take the month of August off. Thus, it falls on me alone to cover the only book in the history of mystery fiction to actually employ a four-foot human thumb as a murder weapon: Norman Berrow’s The Spaniard’s Thumb (1949).
A giant thumb, you say? Why, that’s amazing, fantastic, dare I say . . . stupid? But really, if you just think about it for a minute . . . yeah, it’s a really dumb concept. Just look at that cover, provided by the talented (and possibly stoned) artists over at Ramble House, which has been so good as to publish Berrow’s full output of twenty mysteries. There’s the thumb, drenched in blood, standing in wait for whoever comes through that door. I mean, does the thumb even look Spanish???
And yet, somehow, despite the utter ridiculousness of the title and the cover, I found much to enjoy about this book. Bear with me, and I’ll try to put my finger on what that is. (Ouch . . . sorry.)
My buddy JJ at The Invisible Event introduced me to Norman Berrow, an almost forgotten mystery writer from New Zealand. JJ’s positive reviews of The Bishop’s Sword (1948) and The Footprints of Satan (1950), two of the five mysteries featuring Detective-InTspector Lancelot Carolus Smith of the Winchingham Police Department, intrigued me. Given my desire to scoop my pal, I decided to go with the other Smith adventures first, and so I began with his premiere case, The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947). This was such an enjoyable romp, complete with three vexing impossible situations and a nicely humorous tone to the whole thing, that it made up for the fact that it really wasn’t a murder mystery at all.
1950’s Don’t Go Out After Dark, the fourth Smith adventure, finds us wading (sometimes literally) in more traditional whodunit waters, but I had more to quibble about here. the characters were mundane and the situation too drawn out, and the ending, while twisty in a good way, didn’t feel earned, especially since this blogger had the killer’s identity figured out pretty early on.
The set-up for The Spaniard’s Thumb is more promising: to her total surprise, young and beautiful Cherry Fairfax has inherited Falloway Hall, the country mansion of her recently deceased great-aunt. She had been sure that Great-Aunt Lavinia would favor her distant cousin, Major George Dryden, whom Cherry hasn’t seen since he pushed her into the River Winch when they were children. But the male heirs of Falloway Hall seem to meet with bad ends, and who is Cherry to argue with the old lady’s decision? So she and her Aunt Margaret set up house there, not knowing that any location in Winchingham tends to be the source of bizarre and impossible events. And what’s in store for the two ladies in the disused, locked cellar of Falloway Hall ranks on the top of the Bizarro Scale. It seems that the cellar is the epicenter of a curse on the Falloway clan, a curse that takes the form of a gigantic ghost thumb. And it’s a thumb with murder on its mind!!!
A giant killer thumb is an idea so ludicrous that you expect this novel to be screwball from start to finish, yet Berrow insists that we take it seriously. He plays it smart by having his characters confront the sheer lunacy of the idea in order to create a genuinely unsettling atmosphere throughout. Detective-Inspector Smith is clued into this ambiguity right away, as he tells his superior:
“We’ve had phantom rooms and ambulant psychic bodies, we’ve had apparitions and vanishings, we’ve had a man who didn’t exist and another who existed in two places at one and the same time. We’ve had some queer things in the last few years. But there was an element of comedy, almost farce, in most of those things. But this – I tell you, Super, this is a grim business. It’s diabolical . . . “
It’s also an impossible crime. Every night at 2am, a terrible noise emanates from the cellar. If a person shines a light through the barred, locked door, the sound stops until the light goes out. And when the sound ends, an examination of the room yields nothing. Is it the thumb, stamping out a nightly “boom boom boom” of vengeance? What starts as a curious puzzle becomes more and more disquieting until the ladies call in an exorcist. The thumb exorcist isn’t handsome, but he’s pretty cuticle. (I’m sorry, but this will happen . . . ) One night, he enters the room before the sound begins in order to confront the terror, and he falls victim to a horrible and bloody murder. And he is not the first or the last who will die . . .
In terms of atmosphere, Berrow sets things up beautifully. Cherry and her aunt are likable characters, and the situation grows in seriousness through their eyes. The moments in and around the cellar build in suspense to achieve a nice sense of terror. As an impossible crime whodunit, perhaps the quality goes down a tad. Perhaps it’s because the impossible situations he lays out are so barmy that nobody in the book ever buys them. Even the witness who says he saw a giant thumb hangs his head in shame whenever he has to recount this tale. Perhaps it’s because Berrow doesn’t always play fair. I’m not locked room aficionado, but I’ll bet that those of my friends who are will find the truth behind the haunted cellar to be disappointing, maybe even a bit of a cheat from the point of view of a classic mystery lover.
And yet, there is much to enjoy here. Berrow’s prose is breezy and entertaining. As seriously as his characters take the crazy situations the author throws at them, the banter between people is often delightful, especially between Smith and his police team. That’s the good news. The other news is that sometimes it all goes on for too long. I haven’t read a Berrow novel yet that I don’t think could be improved by trimming 40 – 50 pages.
Berrow tends to begin each novel exploring the world of his victim and suspects but quickly moves into the territory of the police procedural, focusing on the efforts of the police. This is fine, as Smith is a charming protagonist, and he works with a great bunch of subordinates, including wiseacre Detective-Sergeant Bill Poynter, who “happened to know a thing or two about most things” and the stalwart Detective-Constable Brookes. The efforts of these assistants actually contribute a lot to obtaining a solution to the case. Still, there may be one or two too many conferences in the office of the Superintendent as Smith lays out the case for his spluttering superiors over and over again. Plus, in sheer size the police team always tends to outnumber the suspects, since Berrow likes to work with small casts. This reduces the fun for a mystery fan, since after a couple of murders there aren’t a lot of options left for who the murderer might be. This wasn’t really an issue in The Three Tiers of Fantasy, but it posed a problem in Don’t Go Out After Dark. Readers may glom onto the identity of The Thumb pretty quickly here, as Berrow is not much of a master of misdirection. But he does shift suspicion around a bit, and the final reveal, while not altogether surprising, is rendered with a good dollop of suspense. No “gathering of the suspects in the study” here. What starts in the cellar ends in the cellar!
So I really have to hand it (ow!) to Berrow: I’ll go out on a limb (oof!) and recommend The Spaniard’s Thumb as a diverting read, if you don’t expect a typical country house full of greedy relatives and a pantry full of clues. Rather, Berrow excels at presenting a truly cockamamie situation and draws out the suspense (sometimes to the point where it threatens to dissipate) but adds enough warmth and humor that you just want to sit back and enjoy the ride until the inevitable moment when Smith’s head rears back and his eyes bulge to signal that he has figured out the whole thing. Based on JJ’s reviews, I have a feeling that the best Smith adventures lie ahead of me, and I would be interested in hearing from those who have read some of Berrow’s work to see what his other series are like.