#267: One Thrilling Night (1937) by Norman Berrow

One Thrilling NightSometimes I think it is possible to become jaded from reading too much of the same type of book.  I signed up to this GAD blogging lark on my own initiative, and it’s the genre I prefer to read, but the need to get in at least one, and ideally two, a week to meet my own self-imposed deadlines can lead at times to a little disaffection creeping in.  Thankfully, via the exemplary work of Fender Tucker’s Ramble House imprint, I have discovered the books of Norman Berrow, and so if my will be wandering I have the option of returning to the lightness and joy of his entertaining milieu.  He’s not a plotter par excellence, but I find these books fun in a way that obviates my usual requirements in this direction.  Prose before pose, dudes.

One Thrilling Night (1937) is the second and final novel to feature Detective Inspector Richard Courtenay, another example of Berrow’s ability to conjure effortlessly sympathetic and enjoyable policemen with the barest turn of a pen, and here he’s given another one night, one location stumper: a fashionable London set, a party game played in darkness, a crime, another crime, and then another…  The synopsis promises an impossibility that does not occur — this is one of those “who was where when?” puzzles, and by no means impossible — but the structure brings to my mind, quite genuinely, Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie.

Approximately the first third is given over to the introduction of the characters and the crime itself.  It’s worth remarking how in the first eight pages Berrow drops no fewer than 12 characters on you in a manner that keeps them distinct from their initial appearance, but then he’s helped by writing like this:

Your hostess, Mrs. Mostyn-Martyn.  Note the “y”s.  They make all the difference between Mayfair and, say, Kensington.  They place her at once.  Mrs. Mostyn-Martyn is still a young woman.  She is twenty-nine — she has been twenty-nine for the past four years.

And:

These people are, possibly, of the Smart Set; but I shouldn’t call them Bright Young Things.  The B.Y.T. are a group of crazy children who should be up-ended and soundly spanked by their long-suffering but apparently feeble-minded parents.

The narrative voice Berrow adopts has this sort of paternalistic air to it, regaling events in the third person but dropping in every so often a first-person reflection on what’s happening that can’t help but quirk the corners of even the driest soul (e.g., It is pretty difficult to hiss a sentence without a single sibilant in it, but that is the only way I can describe it).  And his character work in moments of light description (She sensed the men present — Cleopatra knew when a man was about even in pitch darkness) is the sort of thing literature courses should study at exhaustive and misery-inducing length.

The second third sees the appearance of our detective, and the rounds and rounds of interviews that mark the remainder of the book — like our train-bound Belgian friend, Courtenay is in no rush to lessen the pressure or discomfort of this situation for those involved, and his apparently haphazard ordering of the interviewees is explained away very cleverly in one of those moments of clarity at which Berrow so excels.  Here and there are sparkles of the steadfastly skewed way of looking at the world that GAD fiction has at its best — the difference between men’s afternoon and evening dress trousers, for one — but mainly these are helped along by clear ideas communicated cleanly (a map of the house would have been nice as a lot of rooms are used, but is by no means essential).

We then get, in the final third, an escalation of the challenge, and the eventual piecing together of seemingly unrelated and casual observations before our ‘tec gathers everyone in the dining car Drawing Room to expound his solution.  Where this interviews-as-structure falls down, in contract to Christie’s rightly more famous utilisation, is that Berrow again lacks a truly brilliant solution, or even the flashes thereof.  His answers are fine, but the head-scrambling process of working out precisely who was where and when demands a bigger payoff — a levelled finger and “So you dunnit!” isn’t quite what we’re after.  He even sets up the opportunity for something moderately clever that is never fired, and I wonder how many of his 20 published novels will fizzle out in this way.

But I do appreciate Berrow’s gleeful hand-rubbing enjoyment of throwing so many materials into the mix and ensuring he manages to pluck more than a few memorable characters from the resulting brew (I also learned the origin of the name Abigail, which is an interesting bonus).  For ingenuity you should look elsewhere, but this is another recommended resting place for any weary travellers passing through.

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

The Detective-Inspector Richard Courtenay novels:

1. The Secret Dancer (1936)
2. One Thrilling Night (1937)

~

I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Stoned Young Owen Wilson…no, wait, sorry, I mean Written Document.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Death in the Dark because both feature crimes that take place under cover of total darkness.

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14 thoughts on “#267: One Thrilling Night (1937) by Norman Berrow

  1. “…. Berrow again lacks a truly brilliant solution…”
    This is true of most of his books. In fact, I have found brilliant solutions in only 2 cases: Footprints Of Satan and the second episode of The Three Tiers Of Fantasy.

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    • I think if the situation is interesting enough — like Footprints of Satan, or The Bishop’s Sword — he’s capable of coming up with something worth paying attention to. However it does seem that in slighlty more…prosaic, I guess…setups such as this he’s less likely to introduce that moment of sudden reversal and reappraisal.

      Mind you, I base this on three such books, and he almost works in something of that type in Oil Under the Window (which, interestingly, is revealed to be a sequal to this despite being published the year before OTN). Never say never, as we know, and he truly is one of the most purely enjoyable writers I’ve ever read. On prose alone I’ll read everything he wrote, no question.

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      • I have just read Don’t Jump , Mr. Boland by Norman Berrow where the solution to the impossibility was so obvious ! Similar is the case with all the impossibilities in The Bishop’s Sword.
        The solutions to impossibilities offered by Berrow are generally nothing much to speak about.. Compare with the solutions offered by Paul Halter or Carr.
        For example, compare the solution of third episode of The Three Tiers Of fantasy (phantom street) with that of The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter. You realise the difference between mediocrity and brilliance.
        However, I agree that Berrow is an enjoyable author.

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        • (continuing)
          Or, compare the solutions to psychic body travels in The Bishop’s Sword with those in La Corde D’Argent

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        • Ha, well I’ll either have to finally get round to improving my French or wit for a translation before I can comment here…! But I agree that the Berrow solution is rather disappointing.

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        • I own, but have not yet read, …Mr. Boland, so I’ll be able to comment on that in time. And as much as the impossibilities were easily worked out in The Bishop’s Sword I still enjoyed them a lot more than far less obvious ones in far less well constructed novels (Michael Bowen’s Washington Deceased, say). I don’t think, for me, that being completely bamboozled is the only requirement — it’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but seeing the impossibilities fitted together well or coming out of an organic necessity (as in The Howling Beast by Noel Vindry) still makes them as enjoyable.

          I reckon Berrow has at least a couple of belters in him to come. You don’t write The Footprints of Satan by accident…

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  2. Oh. *sigh* I have this title on my Kindle, and was hoping for a glowing endorsement, closer to ‘Spaniard’s Thumb’ or even ‘Footprints of Satan’. But one can’t win every time. 😦

    I haven’t read ‘Footprints of Satan’ and ‘Three Tiers of Fantasy’ – need to keep discipline and leave the best for the last – but I enjoyed ‘Bishop’s Sword’. Sure, there was one too many puzzle for the novel to be consistently good, but at least one resolution, I thought, was great. I quite liked ‘Don’t Go out after Dark’, and thought it offered a good ending to an otherwise average novel, but my memory tells me that Brad would demur… 😦

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    • Brad seems to be demurring on everything at the moment; I think hes trying to steal my position as King of Well I Don’t Agree With That…

      For the first half this was probably my favourite new Berrow novel — the prose is great, and that “removeded narrator” voice he uses marks a significant departure from the previous works I’ve read — but the rounds and rounds of interviews, and the lack of a shattering revelation come the end, just holds him back from being able to recommend this unhesitatingly.

      I get a sense that he felt these limitations in the character of Courtenay, which is why we never saw him again. Which would be interesting were that the case, because Courtenay, Marks, and the various policeman who support them aren’t hugely different from, say, Lancelot Carolus Smith and his legions…ah, to be able to pick Berrow’s brains over this! Alas, we shall have to be content with never knowing…

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      • Nope, Mr. and Mr. Smartass, I DO agree about DGOAD: it was my least favorite Berrow so far in terms of story, but the solution (almost) redeemed it. And I also agree that Berrow’s prose is so delightful that it balances the deficits in his solutions. (I haven’t read FOS yet.) If Halter’s trickery is superior, as Santosh claims and I won’t argue, his prose, characterization and plotting are so unsatisfactory as a rule that I can’t stop grumbling about them.

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    • I have the advatage of having started with two excellent Berrows — The Bishop’s Sword and The Footprints of Satan — otherwise I think the plotting shortfall might put me off a little more than it does here. As I’ve said elsewhere, I firmly believe that he has at least a couple of other superb books out there, and with that conviction I’m more than happy to surge ahead with eveything else he wrote. Others would be advised to start elsewhere, though.

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