We should be thankful that Norman Berrow left behind him such wonderful novels as these that make it almost possible to get a glimpse into the workings of his mind. I mean, who else would predicate a novel on the grounds of a giant disembodied thumb vengefully crushing to death anyone who ventures into its lair? It’s a setup too barmy for John Dickson Carr’s fertile impossibilities, too outré for the straight-laced world of Agatha Christie, Miles Burton, Christianna Brand, and their ilk, and doesn’t have enough train journeys for Freeman Wills Crofts. It’s too comedic and explicit for the standard horror get-up of M.R. James or those who followed him…honestly, had Berrow not written this there’s really no-one else who could have.
Writing it is one thing, however, writing it well is quite another, and this is what really makes the difference. Berrow is an accomplished, witty writer who is able to build a surprisingly effective sense of unease over the first half (you know it’s going to be about a thumb because of the title and the cover, but there’s no mention specifically of The Thumb itself by any of the characters until almost the halfway stage) by making the world of his story feel tangible before pulling out rugs you we unaware you’d even been standing on. He does the same thing in The Footprints of Satan (1950) — giving you 30 pages of a small community going about its business before those impossible footprints appear and provide a 20 page confounding discovery — and such patience is admirable given that he clearly wants to get to the bit where a disembodied four-foot thumb crushes a man’s head.
Upon the completion of this second trip, the young chatelaine of Falloway Hall felt she had mastered the art of driving a horse. Which was erroneous and illusory, because sitting behind the somnolent, jog-trotting Claudius and driving a horse were not necessarily synonymous terms; one didn’t drive Claudius, one simply sat there with slack reins and woke him up at odd intervals…
This helps these events, when they occur, to avoid the hollow, hoked up effect that it would be fair to expect going into this. It’s actually quite disconcerting, especially as you know the impossibility is going to be revealed to have some facticious origin, and the cellar in which this all takes place achieves sepulchral dimensions as things progress, with Berrow not leering in pornographic delight over the damage wrought, but also not shying away from it either.
What happened, almost exactly two hours later, was swift and sudden, paralysingly unexpected and unbelievably terrible…
Cue Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith and his cohort of policemen, easily among my favourite crime-solving collective in the firmament of detective fiction. There’s something about Berrow’s writing which underscores a deep sense of camaraderie and respect among these men without ever having to write about a junior officer gazing adoringly at Smith, or about Smith and Superintendent Blackler ever getting into stilted conversations about how much they trust each other…it’s all finely observed in the dialogue and the easy, buttoned-up ribaldry between these men. Each of them is human in their conduct, their oversight, their frustration, the nature of their professional obligations and commitments, and the fact that key things are missed and the plot furthered because of them goes hand-in-hand in a way that doesn’t feel unduly contrived.
In this way, it’s very much the characters that carry this, as the plot never extends beyond its nutty remit of “a giant thumb crushes people to death in a cellar”. From the surprisingly level-headed psychic Quentin Veil to the elderly man-of-all-work Jarvis, everyone is given time to breathe (and some of them time to stop) and feel like a real person. This may result in the kind of plotting that others will find drawn out, but I loved the way the normalness of these people was allowed to permeate and therefore heighten the inexplicable weirdness at its core.
“It was like a false note in a sonata. Ever listen to sonatas, Brookes — or should I say sonati?”
Brookes intimated respectfully that Mr. Smith could pronounce the name whatever way he liked; personally he preferred Bing, Frankie gave him a pain.
The solution, then, must come and explain all these happenings away, and it certainly does this while undoubtedly lacking a certain artistry. There’s one absolutely brilliant aspect of it and another facet that doesn’t shy away from the horror of what is discovered (suffice to say, not in a violent way, just in the starkness of the revelation), but you’re not all going to be delighted even though it would be unrealistic to expect much more. Berrow may be a slightly uninspired resolver at times, but for such verdant imagineering, such excellent prose, such easy characterisation, and especially for giving me here — “Hairy Aaron!” — my new favourite expression of incredulous surprise, I look forward to everything he’s written. In fact, more are in the post even as you read this…
The Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith novels:
1. The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947)
2. The Bishop’s Sword (1948)
3. The Spaniard’s Thumb (1949)
4. Don’t Go Out After Dark (1950)
5. The Footprints of Satan (1950)
Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: 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.
While a gigantic, disembodied, murderous, pollical Iberian isn’t quite the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen (I live a full life, it must be said, contrary to appearances) I submit this book for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Weirdest Item You’ve Seen.