Lacking as I do the talent to devise my own fictional impossible crime and solution, I take refuge in those authors who have done it time and again to such success. The Footprints of Satan, my second Norman Berrow novel after the delightful surprise of The Bishop’s Sword, goes one even better: far from simply devising his own impossibility, he takes an unexplained one from real life, turns it to his own fictional purposes and then explains it away beautifully. Both the foreword and the plot here make reference to an incident from 1855 and reported in no less august a publication than The Times in which a trail of hoof-marks appeared in the snow as if from a cloven-footed creature walking on its hind legs.
To add to the bafflement, they not only followed a route that would be inaccessible to any normal corporeal being – high walls, the tops of hedges, etc – but they also began and ended in the middle of uninterrupted blankets of snow. Berrow transfers this to the small hamlet of Winchingham, with similarly cloven or possibly shoe’d footprints appearing in the snow, following an equally impossible route and then terminating in equally inexplicable circumstances. So did something from Beyond step out of its own personal wormhole before disappearing in the same way, or can a more tangible cause be found?
I’ve not yet read enough Berrow to be able to say whether it’s a deliberate decision or not, but he certainly seems to understand that the problem itself is enough to astound without the need to dress it up in excess atmosphere. John Dickson Carr would have smothered this in beautiful claustrophobia and probably lost some of its impact in doing so, but Berrow simply presents it as a physical fact – the 26 pages spent following the trail upon its discovery are wonderful in the simplicity of their prose – that appears to have no explanation. Some people may find this presentation a trifle bland and wish more were done with it, but to my tastes it makes the moments of urgency and desperation that he drops in as things develop all the more striking.
As in The Bishop’s Sword, he has a small cast that is superbly drawn and manages to circumvent most of the tropes you’d expect them to fall into – see Gregory Cushing’s petulant response to being told by his uncle, whom he is visiting due to circumstances than again remove themselves from the conventional, that elderly spinster Miss Emiline Forbes has been enquiring about him. Said uncle, the drunkard Jake Popplewell, is all phonetic speech and belligerence but also slowly revealed to be much deeper and more affecting as the book progresses. The police don’t fare quite as well – Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith is again tall, wears a hat, and has thick hair, and beyond his uxorial arrangements we’re told little else – but these professional gentlemen interact with each other in a manner that speaks of deep trust, mutual respect, and professional endeavour and Berrow never feels the need to grandstand on any of this.
The problem itself honestly had me stumped for a long time, which was a joyous sensation. Some of you, doubtless quicker on the uptake than I, would be onto it in no time at all, but I think Berrow does a brilliant job of keeping it simple and opaque at the same time. If there is one flaw it’s that his commitment to playing fair leads him to drop in some of the key information rather ham-handedly so that you spring to the workings pretty much immediately upon their reveal (I was ahead of him by, like, four lines)…but then what a nice problem to have. Failing to mention this particular point and then using it in the explanation would be bloody annoying, so I’d rather it this way round.
Miss Forbes clearly hasn’t learned from her experience in The Bishop’s Sword – we’re in the same setting, albeit with slightly altered geography as everything seems rather more proximal than was stated in that fine book – and her speculation on the existence of the psychic plane is checked by Berrow just before it gets irritating. The fact that she and Smith are aiming at contrary conclusions since he is seeking to quash all such speculation is thankfully never turned into some third-roll conflict, but it was nice to get her away from the investigation before the nonsense she is spouting (and Berrow writes it brilliantly, with a real air of conviction behind it) starts to feel like padding.
I’m being deliberately vague on the contents because I think it’s a book you really need to live through yourselves without knowing quite what to expect. Reading this back it seems a little blanched of enthusiasm, but I adored this and continue to be hugely excited about what else Norman Berrow has to offer we fans of the inexplicable problem. The stark simplicity of the writing, the care taken to establish a community dropped into the intractable, the events that develop, everything is so perfectly paced, measured, handled, mixed, and resolved that I’m happy to recommend this as enthusiastically as I’ve ever recommended anything. And Ramble Houe’s resident artist Gavin L. O’Keefe has done a marvellous job with the Dell-esque map on the back cover, too, so what’s not to love?
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, I urge you to get it at your earliest convenience.
I submit this review as part of the 1950 Monthly Challenge at Past Offences, and also the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Map or Chart.