#37: The Bishop’s Sword (1948) by Norman Berrow

Bishop's SwordIt is due to experiences akin to that of reading The Bishop’s Sword – a euphemism of a title if ever there was one, though here referring to a literal sword once owned by a bishop – that I started this blog in the first place.  Picking up a book with very little to go on (a cursory, and then slightly more thorough, search online revealed not a single review of this anywhere) and having it turn out to be an absolute joy is the kind of thing I have to share with someone though, while in no way dismissing the many fine qualities that they do possess, not the kind of thing my friends necessarily share my enthusiasm for.  And so I throw this to the interwebs, that you may be a way of enabling me to feel that someone who might be intrigued is going to share in this, and frankly you’re on to a corker if you decide to partake.  You are, of course, most welcome.

Three impossibilities are promised on page one – the priceless eponymous sword stolen from its hermetically-sealed casing, a man locked up in jail managing to visit two different people on two different nights, and a disappearance from a cave with one point of ingress/egress that seven people enter and only six leave.  This is not accurate.  There are actually four impossibilities, the extra one being a miraculous disappearance from a room whose only unobserved exit is a window locked from the inside.  Mixed together, it’s like Hake Talbot decided to settle down and write conventional English Country House mysteries but then couldn’t resist throwing in impossibility after impossibility just to keep himself interested.  It is a huge amount of fun, and plotted so neatly and so well dovetailed that I’m able to forgive the couple of flaws that others may struggle to overlook (of which more later).

It is difficult to know where to begin.  Berrow exhibits an astoundingly light touch throughout, managing to be both playful and serious, light and dark, and to give you characters that are familiar archetypes but also feel somehow richer.  Take improbably-named (and likely-bullied-at-school) policeman of the piece, Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith: in the entire book we’re explicitly told that he a) is 43 years old, b) has thick dark hair with a sprinkling of grey, and c) wears a hat.  Nothing more.  So far he could be Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockrill just as easily as Josephine Tey’s character-void Alan Grant.  And yet within five pages of his introduction – following a conversation with his superior officer and, particularly, a comment made in response to another character at a crime scene – I had a sense of him as a finely-realised intelligent, observant man whose occasional forays into waspishness are born more from irritation with himself than any expression of outward irritation with or at others.  Take the following conversation, regarding the strange Mr. Strange who is at the centre of the plot:

Mr. Smith raised his eyebrows whimsically, “That makes him out a charlatan then?”

“Yes, of course.  The world’s full of religious fakers like Strange.”

“I’d hardly call him religious.  Religion, according to him, is a miasma – soothing dope for the unthinking masses, same like Lenin said.”

“Did he?” asked the colonel sarcastically.  “And where is Lenin now?”

“I don’t know,” said the inspector flippantly.  “These Russians never tell you anything.”

Now, if course, not everyone gets quite the same treatment, but it’s interesting how smartly Berrow sidesteps a lot of expectations – the Elderly Christian Widow, the Loyal Gardener, the Background Police Officers Who Do the Real Work, the Slightly Caddish Bright Young Gentleman, even the Mumbo-Jumbo Spouting Quasi-Religious Outsider (shades of Anthony Boucher’s Nine Time Nine there) – just when you think you know exactly what you’re getting, a turn of phrase will hint at another side to a character whose measure you thought you had.

Equally, his plotting, while never lurching too far beyond the conventional expectations, hits a few unexpected turns while simultaneously fitting together in a way that is marvellously clever; each cog and each action plays its part, but it feels like something hewn from of genuine occurrence rather than simply a way of getting his plot forrader.  It is – and here’s a word I don’t use very much – charming.  It moves purposefully but is light on its feet, and doesn’t save all its revelations for the end; it treats its readers as intelligent people, and is astonishingly lucid in its explanations.  It may be just a trifle too long as a result of this dedication to clarity, but there’s certainly no risk of you going away short-changed.

As to the impossibilities…well.  To Berrow’s immense credit they are entertainingly presented and you have the information needed to resolve each of them, some of it very subtly conveyed (indeed, you have a crucial piece of information that Smith lacks for quite some time).  They are not especially baffling – this reader was able to figure out all four of them – but they do fit inside of the plot superbly.  One in particular is possibly pushing things a little too far, trying a little too hard to be confounding when it isn’t really, and has a solution (as hinted above) that some people won’t like.  Personally, I take it as part of the whole, and the whole is an unexpected delight.  One very slight element is unresolved – and I really must here stress that it is only very slight – but, again, it depends on whether you need everything to be perfectly tied up with absolutely no objections.  That’s not an implied criticism, some people do, but you’ll get much more out of this if you treat it as a near-seamless piece of puzzle plotting that was only ever intended to entertain.

I bought this purely on the fact that it sounded interesting and Ramble House had published it (it could have easily turned out to be one of their ‘Ooooo, how mysterious’ pieces of supernatural fiction, given that arm of their output), but Norman Berrow has been the discovery of my year, and – while lacking his ingenuity – reminds me of fellow Ramble House loon Rupert Penny (high praise indeed coming from me, as you’ll know!).  To publishers like them, Rue Morgue Press and Locked Room International I once again raise my hat – may they all keep up their ongoing mission of bringing these gems back to the light for our enjoyment.  And here’s hoping I’ve persuaded you that this is worthy of your time, because it really, really is.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

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25 thoughts on “#37: The Bishop’s Sword (1948) by Norman Berrow

  1. I have decided to buy this book as well as The Three Tiers Of Fantasy soon.
    I find that both are available as ebooks at Lulu.com

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    • Delighted to hear it, Santosh – hope you get as much fun out of this as I did. Berrow is an author I’ll be reading much more of, and so I imagine he’ll be cropping up on here fairly regualrly. The next one I own is another impossible event inspired by real life: The Footprints of Satan.

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  2. This does sound interesting; I’ll also keep my eyes open for these. And isn’t it fun to take on a book that hasn’t been reviewed by anyone else? It’s like a long unbroken stretch of fresh powder snow at the top of the mountain LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, you’re spot on there, Noah – coming at this with no preconceptions was an uncommon experience to say the least! I’m now an overwhelmingly significant proportion of the online opinions on this book; maybe I should get some business cards made…

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  3. “And here’s hoping I’ve persuaded you that this is worthy of your time, because it really, really is.”

    For better or for worse, I don’t think I need much persuasion to download yet another fiercely intricate, puzzle-oriented, mystery novel… 😛 Thanks for the review! Ever since I got my hands on a Kindle earlier this week, I think I’ve purchased enough mystery novels to last me for the whole of next year. Which is troubling insofar as the hardcopy books sitting on my shelf are sufficient to tide me through the whole of next year too.

    You would be pleased to know that a few of the Kindle titles I purchased were off the back of your recommendations, including Halter’s ‘Phantom Passage’, Boucher’s ‘Nine Times Nine’. I managed to hold back from Torok’s ‘Monte Verita’ and Carr’s Man Who Could Not Shudder’ though.

    *Goes off to buy ‘Bishop’s Sword’…*

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, sounds like a familiar problem but also a lovely one: dammit, there are just too many awesome books to read! Will be very interested to hear what you make of the Boucher and the Halter, and holding off on the Carr probably isn’t a bad iea as Orion have a sale every Christmas and Summer so it will be cheaper in a few weeks… 😛

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    • I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Santosh; if you don’t mind his flaws I think Berrow could be the kind of GA writer that there’s a huge amount of fun to be had with. I’m very excited to read more of him and will appreciate another opinion!

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      • I have finished the book. I found it quite good and enjoyed it very much. It reminded me of Paul Halter. Several crazy, unbelievable events with rational explanations at the end.
        However, like you, I was able to guess all the four impossibilities.

        SPOILER ALERT

        In fact, in the two psychic body travel cases, the most obvious explanation turns out to be the correct explanation.

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        • Santosh, I’m delighted you enjoyed it – it is a fabulously-constructed plot and the impossibilities work extremely well inside of it. I look forward to reading more Berrow to see if he is able to work in slightly more creativitiy to his imposibile explanations, but I’m perfectly happy to accept slightly easy answers if his plotting remains that good.

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  4. Incidentally, there is an astral body travel impossibility in Paul Halter’s La corde d’argent (not yet translated to English). It has a very clever explanation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paul Halter, you say? Hmmmm, I think I’ve heard of him… 😛

      If anyone can do a clever astral projection explanation, Halter can. Here’s hoping it’s one lined up for LRI’s future output…

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  5. Though I am never given credit for this I helped bring back Norman Berrow and Max Afford to the reading public. Neither Fender nor Gavin knew anything about either writer until I told each about both writers. I loaned Fender my copies of THE BISHOP’S SWORD and DONT GO OUT AFTER DARK (the covers of my copies are depicted on the rear of the RH editions) so he could get the text OCR’d into his computer. THE BISHOP’S SWORD was the first Berrow book published by Ramble House back in the days when Fender printed the books on his home computer and assembled them with the aid of glue and an iron. I kid you not. When the Berrow books started picking up in sales I then told Gavin O’Keefe about Max Afford. I thought he would have much more luck in finding the books since he lives in Australia and apart from one title there were no US editions of any of his books. I was looking to UK booksellers for both Berrow and Afford. Gavin managed to find quite a few of Afford’s books. Most of the rest of the Berrow books were loaned to Fender by Bill Pronzini who I thinks has every single title. And now we have all of Berrow’s and Afford’s books available from Ramble House. All I can say is thank God Fender is no longer making books with a computer, glue and an iron!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well then, John, I extend my most sincere thanks to you; my exprience of both is limited, but they’re most certainly authors that I shall be checking out more of in the future, and I’m extremely grateful that they’re available. Rest assured, your contribution shall be stored here for posterity!

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