#61: The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow

Footprints of SatanLacking 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.

Footprints of Satan backI’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.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstar filled

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.

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35 thoughts on “#61: The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow

  1. I have read this book and agree with you. I enjoyed it very much. Though I was able to guess all the impossibilities in The Bishop’s Sword, I could not guess the central trick here, which is both simple and ingenious. Also, I was surprised by the identity of the culprit though the clues are all there.
    The map on the back cover is superb.
    Now I am eager to read his other books.

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    • Well, that’s a relief – there being no other reviews to go by I was wondering if I’d been exceptionally dense in the workings. But then I do think this is the exact book Norman Berrow should be writing – great the Bishop’s Sword was, just a single core impossibility explored at length works far better for his style of plotting, especially when it’s a doozy like this one. I share your enthusiasm for what else is out there, he’s been a real find…

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    • Okay, let’s split up: you take TToF, I’ll do something else. We’ll look for survivors and meet back here in a few months (it’ll be a few months before I get to Berrow again…I have a TBR pile to clear). Good luck!

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  2. I’ve read this one years ago and remember it favorably, especially the impossible obstacle course that the footprints had to overcome. What’s even more amazing: Berrow’s situation is small-scale compared to that real-life incident from the 1800s.

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  3. I recently read this and The Three Tiers of Fantasy and basically thought the same of both of them. They’re fun reads, as Berrow draws enjoyable characters and his writing has a pleasant tone to them and his impossible situations are interesting, but the solutions are always very… easy and not very (mentally) engaging. They’re _practical_ solutions, sure, but they show little imagination IMHO, as they’re basically the type of solutions you’d first think of anyway if you yourself wanted to create the same situation. The very first ideas I got about the solution and the culprit for The Footprints of Satan turned out to be completely correct for example, despite me hoping I’d be wrong. But I did enjoy both books overall though.

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    • They are very enjoyable, and very easy to read. The Bishop’s Sword was solvable without too much effort but the way he worked the impossibilities into the plot was fabulous. And while I know what you mean about this one, the fact that I knew how it had to be done didn’t stop me missing it until late on…sometimes you spot ’em and sometimes you don’t!

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  4. Thanks for the review, which made me check out the Lulu website for a cheap electronic copy… Though the minuscle font size of the electronic copy of ‘Bishop’s Sword’ on my Kindle makes me think twice about buying the PDF version…!

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    • As I think I may’ve said, if you contact Fender through the website he’s pretty good as giving a good deal on reduced books. I mean, it’s still not super cheap, but they’re very well-produced and it’s all money to a good cause!

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  5. Norman Berrow is another author you have tempted me to add to my to purchase list. So would you recommend reading this book over the Bishop’s Sword first? Also going off the front cover of this book I think I would have used it in the weirdest item I have seen category for Bev’s Vintage Scavenger hunt, as that is one weird front cover! Though maybe you have book with an even weirder cover in your TBR pile…?

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    • I love the integration of the puzzles into TBS, they just work brilliantly inside of that plot, but this is a better puzzle overall. The quality of this might actually make TBS seem a bit weaker than it is, so it depends on whether you want to experience Berrow being awesome first or whether you want a test-run to get your eye in. I’m happy having done them the way around that I did, and I’m not sure I’d reverse it if given the chance, but that’s just me.

      And, oh yes, I have a cover with something far weirder to come…

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  6. The Devil’s Footprints by G. A. Household (1985) is a 24 pages booklet that gives a comprehensive description of the 1855 event and contains the main press references. It is however out of print and only a very few used copies are available at Amazon at exorbitant prices. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Devils-Footprints-G-A-Household/dp/0861147537
    The story is also included in Oddities by Rupert T. Gould (Chapter 1 : The Devil’s Hoof-marks). I have mentioned this book in comments section of Puzzle Doctor’s post on The Sleeping Sphinx.
    An 84 pages scholarly article on the subject by Mike Dash is available for free downloading at http://www.mikedash.com/assets/files/Devil%27s%20Hoofmarks.pdf
    There is also a Wikipedia article.

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    • That is very cool, thanks for mentioning all this. Stands to reason that there’d be some kind of published record elsewhere, but thanks for saving me and others the job of having to go hunting for it.

      Okay, who’s in first with an explanation for how this was done?

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  7. Yet another author whose work I’ve never tried…but you make a compelling case so he’s going on the list. I like the cover on the version at the top. I know we’re not meant to judge by cover but sometimes it can’t be helped. Makes such a nice change from a half-naked blonde looking shocked and/or dead 🙂

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    • Haha, yeah I know what you mean about the cover – Ramble House do a great job of embracing the weirdness but also capturing the flavour of their books, it’s amazing to think all their covers are the work of just one man. Does Gavin L. O’Keefe sleep? That’s what I want to know!

      Hope you enjoy Berrow when you get to him; I’m definitely going to be reading more of his stuff, he’s been a wonderful discovery, and I’d be interested in your thoughts. Happy reading!

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  8. JJ, this sounds absolutely delightful. I wish I hadn’t told my husband that I wanted to not buy any more books and put money towards shelves to put all these mountains of TBR books on….do you think he’d notice if I sneak off and order this one up? 😉

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    • Haha, far be it from me to sow any dichord or dishonesty into your marriage, but yes, you must absolutely go and buy this book right now. And since it might get lonely in the post, you should totally buy another four or five to keep it company – perhaps some Rupert Pennys and a couple of the British Library reprints. I mean, whatever shelves you put up will always have a tiny bit of extra space on them, right? And that looks untidy, doesn’t it? It would be inhumane of you not to at least attempt to fill it, it’ll look more pleasing to the eye in the long run…

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  11. Hey JJ, thanks for your enticing reviews on Norman Berrow, which made me purchase ‘Don’t Go out after Dark’. I’ve just finished it, and I think you might like it too. I wasn’t sure I felt especially favourable as I was reading the main body of the novel, as the story did not seem to be heading anywhere. But the resolution made me feel as if the rabbit was finally pulled out of the hat: it was surprising in a way that made me think of Agatha Christie, and best of all, it made sense of the preceding story material.

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    • Awesome news, delighted to hear that Berrow’s strengths continue elsewhere. I ordered the next Lancelot Carolus Deene book, The Spaniard’s Thumb, and a few other non-Berrows from Ramble House a few days ago — I think Thumb is the last Deene book, so I’ll make DGOAD my next Berrow later in the year. Thanks again, and I’m so pleased to hear he’s working out for you.

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      • Also, The Spaniard’s Thumb is the 3rd book of the Lancelot Carolus Smith series. The books in order are
        1.The 3 Tiers Of Fantasy
        2.The Bishop’s Sword
        3.The Spaniard’s Thumb
        4.Don’t Go Out After Dark
        5.The Footprints Of Satan

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