Sunday, July 22, 2012

Norman Berrow, an emulator of Carr: The Footprints of Satan, 1950

Norman Berrow: Le orme di Satana (The Footprints of Satan, 1950) – traduz. Giancarlo Carlotti, prefaz. Mauro Boncompagni – ShaKe Edizioni, Collana Nnoir Sélavy, 2010, pagg. 224.  

Norman Berrow is a name unknown to most people: from New Zealand, like Ngaio Marsh, but less known to the public of the lovers of the classic mystery, however, he retains his place in literature of the detective genre, having tried to challenge John Dickson Carr: proposing, in his novels, crime impossible and, several times, Locked Rooms.
Although born in England, in Eastbourne, East Sussex, September 1, 1902, from British parents (but his father was born in India), the third of four children, emigrated with his family of origin, then in New Zealand, where studied at the University of Canterbury New Zealand. But beyond the fact that he was married and had lived in Gibraltar for some time, since some of his novels are set there, and had fought in World War II, beyond the picture, which is incorporated, not more is known. What is known is that, in certain environments, Berrow and his novels were very popular: The Bishop's Sword, Ghost House, The Three Tiers of Fantasy, The Footprints of Satan, are some of the most representative stocks of the twenty total that until the year the '50s were published. About his death date, there are important concerns: according to great majority of sources, his date of death is unknown. But from a friend of mine, who was one of the drafters of the Italian edition of the Dictionary Maspléde, I learned long ago that the date of death might be 1986.
It must be said that The footsteps of Satan is not the first title ever in Berrow to be published in Italy: in fact, in 1958, at “Gialli del Triangolo”, was published by Norman Berrow, “La belva of San Roque” (The Claws of the Cougar), a novel late, having a cut more adventurous than those with closed rooms, but belonging to the years' 50. Currently all the works of Norman Berrow, are available at Ramblehouse.
Norman Berrow tried to emulate Carr, creating a series of situations that often call him back: the disappearance of a road, in The Three Tiers of Fantasy, brings to mind the same disappearance of a street in The Lost Gallows by Carr;  the disappearance of an ancient sword from a sealed casket (The Bishop's sword), may recall the carrian disappearance of a cup from a room (The Cavalier's Cup) and so on.  It’s to say, however, that the inventive step of Berrow can not be said that it was just poor. Several themes found in his works are bizarre: one inch giant who kills (The Spaniard's Thumb), the room singing (The Singing Room), the killing of a demon called "The Black" (Oil Under the Window).
The novel The Footprints of Satan, has the berrowian explanation of an event actually happened in 1855 in some remote places of England, when goats were found footprints imprinted in the snow, and in inaccessible places, such as the steep roofs or above the high boundary walls of the estate. If they occupied the illustrious British newspapers such as "The Times", while noting that timidly position to do so, they admitted the possibility that Beelzebub himself, no one knows why, he wanted to visit the remotest lands on the same night.
Norman Berrow from the historical fact, builts his history: in the town of Winchingham, on the slope of Steeple Thelming, in a winter night, while all the townspeople are there huddled under blankets and warm, are left the unmistakable footprints goat's foot in the snow: that Satan may have decided to take a walk? The fact is that the thing to explain is associated with the discovery of a hanged man. The local community is calling the police to ensure that it is not a joke in bad taste, and the cops say, photographing them, ones are just footprints goat. The strange thing is that the prints that at first seem random set, however, follow an order: it is like a procession. From house to house, the tracks wind their way across the country: here and there disappear, to appear in a few steps away, on roofs and walls (in places inaccessible), until notice footprints are human, followed by goat up the hill, where a clearing desolate, found hanged comes to a dead tree, Mr. Mason, dressed in a double-breasted gray suit with a flashy tie (even here we find carrian references: for example, the man found stabbed dressed in black, with a cylinder, a false beard and a cookbook,  in Arabian Nights Murders).
The hardest thing to explain is that there are around the tree only human fingerprints and those of.. a goat, and no other. To resolve the arcane mystery, is caledl the Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith, who must struggle between real goat tracks, apparitions of a supernatural being called "Lady Blue", queer characters like Jake Popplewell and his old ass Boomer, Miss Forbes , Greg Cushing (grandson of Jake), Croxley spouses, spouses Maltravers
At one fine day they find Mr. Croxley, who had been away from home telling his wife that he went to the police station, in the middle of a field, killed by a blow of his hoof: even here there are no other footprints that his and those of the goat . Lancelot Carolus Smith already groping in the dark after the first offense and after the discovery of footmarks on the window sill of the house of Mason, the window closed and locked from the inside, now he is in danger of collapsing. Until ... suddenly he sees the light. And he identifies the murderer.
Let's say that the main dowry of this novel is the atmosphere: heavy and looming, gripping the reader, at least until the crafty player and broke every type of solution (the minority) understand what Berrow has hidden, and when he know what, inevitably you understand at which circle is to be found the murderer.
What is lacking, however, in my opinion, is the perfect fit between complexity of plot and complexity of the atmosphere: if the atmosphere is very effective, by virtue of a skillful mix of various elements, it does not match up to the end the complexity of the plot. I might add, that the fact that he remakes Carr, also identified another flaw, which is of type character-psychological:  Berrow in my opinion should not be to the end very pleased with himself, literarily speaking, and then always tried to relate to the others, those who had success beyond Carr: as  in the preface Mauro Boncompagni  says... Quentin, Wallace, Oppenheim, Woolrich (and I would add Downing).
The atmosphere by Carr introduces a mystery that is so real, and that unfolds throughout the novel, and that is the answer at the end, and this is because Carr has a relatively large park of characters; Berrow, at least, in novels I've read,  presents less characters. What if on one hand allows him to focus exclusively on the staging of the crime, the other, presenting a small park of suspects , ends up making the reader understand very shrewd (the average beginner and are not at risk), long before what happens in Carr, who may be responsible of murders. This happens because it changes the perspective of the general layout of the staging: Carr looks at 360 °,  Berrow at 180 °. The first writes a story and weaves a novel broad, the second implant a story but even if it is enormously inventive and quality, however, can not or doesn’t  want to manage a large fleet of suspects. And then the novel in my opinion loses in intensity, especially the ending where the reader would expect an exploit and it all ends up instead with a deflation of tension, not with a bang.
Moreover, the character of Norman Berrow, lacks a characteristic way of speaking that identifies him (the blasphemies by Fell or Merrivale, literary allusions refined by Appleby, frequent French expressions by Poirot) and the same name can be anything but a sum of the famous names of other investigators (Lancelot Priestley by John Rhode and Carolus Deene by Leo Bruce).
Beyond this, the novel only for an atmosphere of rare quality, and a surprising explanation of the two impossible crimes (although I guess the murderess). Discovering the motive and the explanation of the locked  room instead are more difficult (here Berrow prevails on reader).

 P. De Palma

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The best novel by Hake Talbot: The Hangman's Handyman, 1942

Even from the first lines we see projected on a remote island, battered by gales, which has a name that says it all: Kraken, like the mythological monster of the deep sea. And the atmosphere already expresses its first signs of strange and threatening.
Nancy Garwood, actress and showgirl, is found lying across the bottom of the bed, still wearing the evening dress and and then she doesn’t how she arrived  to be in bed. She remembers when she arrived in the afternoon along with Jackson Frant and dinner: as you say later, she knew Frant "intimately perhaps" but certainly not good .. (it means that he had sex with him, but as a person he knew little). Also remembers the heavy atmosphere of that house and palpable; servants, silent and without an identity as  if they were shadows, the strange and the guests seated around the table, eight including the host and five empty seats to form thirteen places, omen of doom. She remembers the salt dropped in error on the tablecloth, she remembers the broken mirror, remembers the frightened faces. She doesn’t remember anything.
When Nancy falls in the living room, by candlelight, the clock strikes ten o’clock p.m.. She remembers that she was at dinner at nine. Must have been unconscious at least one hour. The guests should be there, playing the piano, playing cards .. Instead, there is none.

Nancy increasingly tense, the show turns to the dark and threatening, by candlelight.
We observe the scene: Hake Talbot, with consummate skill we would like to say (but this is the debut) introduces the story as if it were not a detective novel, but a fantastic novel, a gothic novel : it would seem one of Radcliffe or Walpole. The candlelight, instead of decreasing the voltage for the dark, it increases it, because it illuminates what is directly in front, but leaves the rest in darkness. And while Nancy advances frightened, scared and tense, the sound here is powerful and unexpected: someone knocks at the door.
She goes to open, because not even the servants made him, as if the house was empty, and she founds Roger Kincaid, a professional player, with an ambiguous past, but who knows human nature better than others, and above all knows how to go down to things, even to those who apparently are not seen.
Talbot reserves entrance leading to Kincaid, with which we can understand that we are facing the "deus ex machina" of the situation.
The nature of the character is also entrusted with the clothes she wears: a heavy raincoat and a hat from the wide brim, which remind us instantly (at least on those familiar with the detective genre) the most famous character of Carr, the Dr. Fell. It 'a way as any to tell the reader: it is the investigator, there are the typical conditions of carrian novels, that are impossible crimes or closed chambers.
The impossible crime is what distinguishes the novel, and is also the event that caused the amnesia of the girl.

Nancy recalls that the number of thirteen invited (but a family of four was not reached) had provided an opportunity for Jackson Frant, industrial chemicals, could make fun of her brother, Lord Evan Tethryn enormously superstitious.
The mockery that was continued in a crescendo of tension, before reading an ancient document which indicated an unspeakable family secret, that the brother had thrown into the fire, then causing the breaking of a mirror, powder, and then causing the deposit of salt on tablecloth, and at the same time emphasizing the ensuing seven years of trouble. The effect of this series of events is the curse cast by Evan at Jack, the real secret unspeakable: to kill the recipient immediately, and let him rot in a short time.

So did the exasperated Lord Evan against the brother Jack Frant. And hearing the curse " Od rot you!" Jack was struck by lightning fell, dead: apparently Od, the sea goddess whom Evan had turned, was briskly to oblige. The body was then transported to his room and left there.

But we have before pointed to a crime impossible: what ever it would be impossible in instant death as surely falling into a pure coincidence, a man cursed by his half-brother? It could very well be a heart attack! So far nothing indicates manifest impossibility: there is only a coincidence also if strange. The impossibility instead will be realized before our eyes, when Kincaid will travel to see the corpse, whose memory causes fainting again of Nancy. While Kincaid her aids, a new character materializes, Arnold Makepeace.

I note that the expedient of heightened tension, we have already seen both in the wake of Nancy (who finds herself in a strange house and darkness), and in the verbal confrontation between the two half-brothers, reappears now in the brief dialogue between these two characters: Arnold if at words he confirms as told by Nancy and tries to be as objective as possible, speaks almost shouting, in a tone that suggests to Rogan, as his partner is terrified.
Well, he obviously present in the stroke, he is hoped in his heart that even Dr. Braxton defines it such. And the tension grows, and continues when the first Rogan rummaging through the ashes of the fireplace, he founds almost intact the loot of pages that had been thrown on the fire (which is a series of reports showing old black magic powers given to the family of two brothers by Od, an elemental spirit of sea) and then when he himself, in the library, founds a series of books specifically occult character, read and reread, especially one with such a famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Do you remember that case? No? It talks about the mesmerism, animal magnetism made in the case of a man at death, which remains in a state of suspended death, until awakened from this state of decomposition in a heartbeat. Because Talbot refers precisely to this story by Poe? Why Kincaid will find Frant, wearing the dress evening, died not from a few hours, but died at least a month, in decomposition so advanced that the only way to assign him the identity, it’s a ring that could not have been imbedded after died.

Here is the manifest impossibility that would legitimize a supernatural intervention, to Od.
That's it?
No. Someone tries to kill Kincaid strangling and yet manages to leave the room leaving her locked inside, with mosquito nets and intact old-growth, impossible to disassemble and assemble outside. Carr would say vanished into air.  Only Od in person could have been!
But why would Od want to kill Kincaid?

Nothing I will say more, except  that the ending of novel is amazing.
Why the novel did impress me so favorably?
The first, we are dealing with a crime so impossible that it can not be more impossible, and even a beautiful Locked Room. Talbot, in short, to create his debut novel, in honor of Carr and Rawson, and fills it impossible crimes and locked rooms, in a supernatural tricks illusions (the same Hake Talbot dabbled in magic) and centers the target , expecting to an established pattern of classic mystery (island battered by storm, secluded villa, curse, crime impossible and even more in a closed chamber, substitutions in person, continuous plot reversals) and creating an atmosphere dense and palpable able to fascinate.
Also it wouldn’t seem to be a debut. It has not flaws in the final by Rim of the Pit, though a lot of persons still consider it superior to ours. The fact is that the ending can not hold the tension accumulated up to that point and Rim of the Pit seems to be missing something, because, summing impossibility to impossibility, and concentrating the explanation of all the mysteries in the finale, "with an effect of complexity a bit too exhausting”, as would tell someone I know, Talbot can not answer all the questions, to satisfy them completely, and leaving a sense of something unresolved.
This leads us to consider how, instead, the first novel, with some humility that is lacking in the second hand, tends to solve the puzzles, each time, leaving only the final identification of the murderer (which is not easy). In fact, the first Talbot/Kincaid addresses the Locked Room, and then he explains the crime impossible.
Beyond this there are similarities between the two novels.
First, the mythological allusions: here is an elemental deities, Od, a demon of the deep sea while there another demon is, an Indian demon, a Windingo. In addition both novels, show magic tricks performed and explained by the guests.
Here and there you notice any mistakes, you may notice that only after reading the novel several times: first it says that an examination of the fingers of the corpse decomposed by Kincaid, Sergeant Dorsey, the police photographer and Feldman Medical Examiner Dr. Murchison, we note that had been removed the skin of the fingertips; then at the end of the novel, we read that the corpse was that of Frant because Feldmann had taken fingerprints: inconsistency perhaps be explained by a previous draft of the novel different?
Beyond this, even Talbot, as Halter, may have used, to wrap the plot of his novel, a series of references to him earlier: the guests present at a villa on an island, reminiscent of And Then There Were None 1939, by Agatha Christie; the 13 dinner guests, another novel by previous Christie, Lord Edgware Dies, 1933; and finally, I would be even tempted to believe that the same misfortune Rogan on board the vessel in the middle stormy sea and its landing on the island where the other guests are waiting, could refer to Careless Corpse, 1937, by King Charles Daly.
Well ... an extraordinary novel, which takes engrossed until the last page.

Pietro De Palma

P. S.
The device used in the Locked Room by Talbot, after was the first used by Bill Pronzini in Bones and then by Paul Halter in his novel La mort vous invite.