1975 marked the tenth anniversary since I had started immersing myself in the Golden Age of Detection. I had gobbled up Christie, Carr and Queen, fortified myself with the foundational stories of Doyle and Poe, and was beginning to branch out to the likes of Marsh, Brand, and Crispin. At the ingenuous age of twenty, I wouldn’t have been knowledgeable enough to, say, write a blog about the subject, but I was enough of a dyed-in-the-wool fan to appreciate a good pastiche!
Enter James Anderson, a British author who would go on to pen a few episodes of Murder She Wroteas well as a bunch of thrillers. In ’75, he published The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cozy, the first of three novels set in the 1930’s that gave a sly wink to the country weekend mysteries which were the trademark of the GAD period. In each novel, a parade of eccentrics convene at the estate of a British Earl where all sorts of hijinks ensue and murder will out.
Here’s the blurb found on the amazon.uk page, illustrating the “kitchen sink” quality to mysteries that Anderson employed:
The theft of the diamond necklace and the antique pistols might all be explained, but the body in the lake – that was a puzzle. “Don’t expect me to solve anything,” Inspector Wilkens announced modestly when he arrived to sort out the unpleasantness. And at a house party that included English aristocracy, foreign agents in disguise, a ravishing baroness, a daring jewel thief, a Texas millionaire, and of course, the imperturbable butler, it was going to take some intricate sleuthing to uncover who killed whom and why…
The novel came complete with a cast of characters and a floor plan that actually helped solve the case.
I thought it was all great fun, and if the sequels proved to be a case of diminishing returns, Anderson clearly knew his classic tropes and had a good time riffing on them. I’m always on the lookout for a good country weekend, and the great thing about blogging through a GAD renaissance is that all sorts of previously forgotten authors are being republished, and I don’t have to resort to pastiches, fun though they are.
Which brings me to Norman Berrow, the author who was born in England but spent most of his life in Christchurch, New Zealand writing British mysteries. Between 1934 and 1957 he published twenty novels, created four series detectives and generally had fun dipping into every sub-genre, from thriller to spy novel to locked room mysteries.
I was fortunate to be introduced to Berrow through the novels featuring D.I. Lancelot Carolus Smith, the lead policeman of a rural British village called Winchingham, home to one impossible crime after another. I have read three of the five D.I. Smith novels, saving, I believe, the two best (The Bishop’s Swordand The Footprints of Satan) for later, but relishing the witty prose, charming characters and brilliant set-ups Berrow created. If his solutions are always a slight letdown, the run up to the ending has been worth it – so far.
I decided to branch out and bought one of Berrow’s four novels featuring Michael and Fleur Revel, a charming couple reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles. Unfortunately, so far I have found Words Have Wings rather impenetrable, and my buddy JJ’s reviews of Murder in the Melody and Fingers for Ransom do not bode well for this particular series.
Thus, I decided to explore the other titles and thus found and purchased the first of Berrow’s non-series mysteries, Oil Under the Window(1936). When I read the blurb for this one, I couldn’t help thinking about Anderson’s Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cozy. Read it yourself and see what I mean:
It all began so simply. Philip Lacy, after ten years of roaming the world and seeing its wonders, decided it was time to return home to Exeter. To settle down a bit and maybe marry the young Mary Colebrooke, a girl he’d left behind so long ago. But murder accompanies him on the train and follows him to the country estate of Sir Julius Rutter and his menagerie of relatives, servants and friends. At the same time, menacing notes from a fiend known only as “The Black” start appearing and before long the bodies begin to pile up. Even when the police are called and camp out at the mansion, the Black seems to be able to do what he wants with the frightened houseguests. But everyone has an alibi. No one can be guilty! It’s a situation that only Norman Berrow could unravel.
This seems tailor made for a GAD enthusiast: the stalwart hero/detective, a bit of romance, a mysteriously masked master criminal, that menagerie of relatives, servants and friends, probably all of them with secrets to spare, and enough murders that “the bodies begin to pile up.” So I shelled out the money – $17.99 plus tax, not cheap, folks – for this book.
It starts off promisingly enough, with a charming, action-filled prologue reminiscent of an early Hitchcock film. Philip seems like a worthy hero, a young man whose spirit of adventure has, to his surprise, carried him back to England with a newfound appreciation and love for his home country. His ruminations over the girl he left behind are interrupted by the abrupt entrance of a beautiful young girl – here comes the romance! – which leads to a climax indicating that Berrow is full of surprises and that one shouldn’t get too comfortable predicting how this will all play out.
The prologue occupies a few brisk pages and faithfully covers this part of the blurb: “It all began so simply. Philip Lacy, after ten years of roaming the world and seeing its wonders, decided it was time to return home to Exeter. To settle down a bit and maybe marry the young Mary Colebrooke, a girl he’d left behind so long ago. But murder accompanies him on the train . . . “
And then – it all begins to go wrong with: “. . . and follows him to the country estate of Sir Julius Rutter and his menagerie of relatives, servants and friends.” Yes, Philip Lacy appears at Sir Julius’ home in the second chapter. He is essentially in disguise, for reasons we can only guess at until Philip returns to the story . . . in Chapter Seventeen, when he helps settle the hash of this master criminal known as The Black. From Chs. 3 – 16, he is missing, presumed written out.
And how about that menagerie, folks? Aside from being another word for “zoo,” a menagerie is defined as “a strange or diverse collection of people or things,” a nice descriptor for what you hope to find when you go down to a country mansion for a good ol’ 1930’s murder spree. Except that this menagerie consists of exactly three people: Sir Julius, his faded spinster of a sister, and his beautiful daughter Mary, to whom Philip Lacy has been promised. There are a bunch of servants: some of them comprise the mounting pile of bodies, while the rest have alibis and do not enter into the story.
The team of investigators is comprised of local cops and a Scotland Yard inspector named Mellish. They all possess the humor and charm that is the hallmark of Berrow’s investigators. I only wish they had possessed more intelligence so that this poor excuse of a whodunit could have been put to bed in the time it takes to complete a short story.
Honestly, folks, as the first of The Black’s crimes unfolded, I thought that maybe the author was kidding. He seemed to be indicating with utter clarity that one person and one person alone could be responsible. As hint after hint was dropped, as the evident guilty party behaved as suspiciously as was possible, I thought that perhaps this book was shifting to a more inverted style. I was reminded of an episode of Columboand figured that Inspector Mellish, who would repeatedly fix the guilty party with odd stares, was merely playing a game of cat and mouse with his prey. But no! Mellish kept smacking his forehead and declaring this to be the deuce of a case!
I suppose we are meant to be taken in by one of the most obvious tricks on the part of the murder that I have ever seen. Honestly, the way this is written makes it just about impossible for any reader who has read a minimum of classic detective novels to be fooled, yet it fools everyone else, and I guess we are supposed to go along for the ride. Seriously, if you read this – and you shouldn’t – let me know if you were taken in – I have a bridge to sell you.
Naturally, I figured that there must be more to this. Perhaps the menagerie would arrive in time for the second murder . . . but no, nobody else shows up. Another servant goes down fighting, the identity of the killer appears even more obvious, if that were possible, and the entire police team smite their collective foreheads and declare themselves gobsmacked!
And where the hell is Philip Lacy???
Chows don’t do it for me – bassets calm me down!
Still, I persevered because the prose was lively, and the cops were, as they always are in a Berrow novel, a pleasure to hang out with. In the end, the only real suspect in the novel is – surprise! – unmasked in a scene that suggests we are actually supposed to feel shocked, and the subsequent recounting of the solution takes up three chapters – which I have to admit I only skimmed because I felt so let down.
It happens a lot to classic mystery readers: you think you’ve got hold of a whodunit and you end up with a thriller. You thought you were reading an inverted mystery, and the author goes and clobbers you with a big surprise. John Dickson Carr could dazzle you with a cast of three or four suspects; evidently, Berrow either can’t or he felt he didn’t need to. Still, when the blurb promises you something grand, hinting that all your favorite classic tropes will be found herein, and then the proceedings limp along without a whiff of mystery – even the title gives much of the game away – you can’t help but want to sue someonefor misrepresentation!
So, if you want to read a country house mystery with a mysterious crook hiding out within an eccentric “menagerie of relatives, servants and friends,” you’re better off getting your hands on Anderson’s pastiche. Better yet, if you want to read some really good Norman Berrow, buy the quintet of D.I. Lancelot Carolus Smith mysteries and dive right in. You won’t be sorry!