As I wend my merry way through the works of Norman Berrow — this is the seventh book of his I’ve read, thanks to the wonderful efforts of Ramble House in republishing his entire catalogue — I’m forced into a certain awareness: I really like his style of mystery, even though they fall slightly below the standard I’d typically expect. His characters are fun, his situations inventive, he doesn’t bog you down in mucilaginous prose, and the fact that he jumped between five different (albeit short) series plus standalones in his career invited a certain variation in his approaches that stops things getting samey. If the plots occasionally fall short of full brilliance…I can live with that. But it makes things a little tricky from a reviewing perspective.
A man prone to bouts of lunacy escapes in unusual circumstances from the private sanatorium where he is a resident, and shortly thereafter a series of murders are committed, the left shoe removed from each victim…well, you join the dots. And yet, can it really be that simple? Ordinary GAD rules say no, but this is Rupert Penny, puzzle-maker par excellence, and thus such easy prehension could be both a feint and the actual intended explanation. So Scotland Yard’s Chief-Inspector Edward Beale is dispatched and brings amateur hanger-on Tony Purdon and Sergeant ‘Horsey’ Matthews with him, a crime-solving triumvirate likely to have even Inspector Joseph French quailing jealously at their ability to unpick complex schemes.
Finding new authors to read is a curious mix of recommendations and speculation. I started reading Rupert Penny because he appeared on this list, but then the joy of Max Afford and Norman Berrow followed purely because they were reprinted by the same publisher, Fender Tucker’s Ramble House. Such an approach has typicallygonewell, and while the care of my choosing could be a factor here, I prefer to think that it’s because RH generally publish very good — and if not very good then at least interesting — books. Thus, picking up this book by Vivian at the end of last year was pure “Well, it’s a Ramble House reprint” speculation, and a simple hope to continue my generally good run from them.
Do you find yourself lulled into an erudite hebetude by too many stories blethering on instead of simply getting down to the plot and relevant incidents? Well, Max Afford’s fifth novel runs to 116 pages and probably doesn’t contain a single one that does not in some way contribute to the interpretations or solutions of the central conundrums. A sea-faring mystery in the Death on the Nile (1937) school, a small group of characters are gathered on a liner heading out from Sydney, Australia to some islands because…reasons…when mysterious phone calls, mysterious passengers, mysterious relationships, and mysterious pasts all converge for a cavalcade of enigmas wrapped in queries and shrouded in deepest sinisterlyness.
My first foray into the work of E.C.R. Lorac was long on character and setting but short on plot. This time there’s plenty of everything to go around, and I’m now very intrigued by what else Edith Caroline Rivett may have cooked up in the realms of GAD writing — am I right in saying that it was mentioned at the Bodies from the Library conference that one of her books will be a future British Library Crime Classic? On this evidence, and trusting those fine folk to continue their habit of making generally good selections, that could be something worth anticipating. She’s not quite Agatha Christie yet, but if you’d read only Destination Unknown and Third Girl then even Agatha Christie wouldn’t be Agatha Christie…
Sometimes 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.
Stage magic and Golden Age detection go hand-in-hand: we go in knowing we’re being fooled in both cases, but there’s little more enjoyable than seeing it done well. Clayton Rawson and Hake Talbot were professional-level magicians who turned their minds to the dark arts of fictional (as far as we know…) murder and crafted some wonderful stories in doing so, and the name Bruce Elliott can also be added to the magician/detection-writer set with this country house mystery that benefits from his magical background by stirring in an impossible crime. This is yet another book that’s foisted an unexpected impossibility upon me, and while it’s not exactly perfect, it’s still a bloody good read.
Like a latter-day Edgar Rice Burroughs, Manly Wade Wellman’s Earthman-out-of-his-element story casts the protagonist as a near-superhuman saviour who is hated by the powerful, championed by the underdog, and treated to sweet, sweet lovin’ by an appreciative female who’s clearly never experienced this sort of hunkiness before. Think Jack Reacher of Mars for best (?) results.
In a week that saw me start and quit three books in a row, it was a relief to open Norman Berrow’s third novel and be put immediately at ease by his nimble capturing of the pre-show backstage goings-on at the latest, most fashionable theatre in London. From the music described as “…a shamelessly stolen conglomeration of Mexican airs, assembled in Tin-Pan Alley, shipped to Europe, and played with astonishing variations” to the beautiful summation of leading lady Lili La Paz as “a miracle to watch; and hell to live with”, it’s the sort of opening salvo that reminds me why I return time and again to Berrow and his slightly disappointing impossibilities (the man does love a secret passage): simply put, he writes glorious prose.
I love a country house mystery, especially those with a body on page one. So when the murder of ex-judge Sir Ernest Ferber in his private garden by man he sentenced harshly and the subsequent suicide of his assailant at the scene is communicated in the opening ten lines of The Baddington Horror, we’re off to a very good start. To my understanding, Walter S. Masterman wrote as many ‘weird tales’ as he did novels of detection, and so it was always a little uncertain what I was going to get here. But the first chapter could not be more Golden Age detection if it tried: murdered aristocrat, retired amateur detective who takes an interest, two big coincidences, and away we go…