Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Discovering Norman Berrow

One of the happy results of publishing The Golden Age of Murder has been that I've received many fascinating messages from people with interesting stories to tell about Golden Age books and writers. Among these have been emails from Prue Mercer in New Zealand, who contacted me about Norman Berrow. I'm delighted that she has agreed to contribute a guest post telling us more about this long-neglected author: 

"I have been exploring my step grandfather Norman Berrow's writing life.  Norman Berrow was a writer of the Golden Age of detective fiction.  Between 1934 and 1957 he published 20 books.  (There was a rewrite of The Ghost House in 1978, a retirement project.) It is remarkable that he established himself in the English crime fiction market from Christchurch, New Zealand, at a time when authorship was not a vocation widely followed in New Zealand.  He achieved this through his books, his agent, the well-known Leonard Moore, and his publisher.  All but his first novel were published by Ward, Lock in London.

Berrow was born in Eastbourne, Sussex, 1 September 1902, into a British military family. His father was Garrison Adjutant in Gibraltar and the family lived there from 1920 to 1922 when his father retired and they moved to Christchurch.  He lived in Sydney from 1949 to 1975, when he retired to Christchurch.  He died there in 1986.

Berrow started writing short stories in his 20s, probably about 1924 or 1925.  In them he is experimenting - murders in rooms locked on the inside, and crooks disappearing in not so clever disguises.  His first novel The Smokers of Hashish (published by Eldon Press) was advertised in the Sunday Times (14 October 1934:12) as being about "Tangier! City of Thrills,  Danger and even Death.  Meet here Hafiz 'The Purveyor of Delights,' leader of an immense dope organisation, and Chiller, who smashed the power of the dope runners."

The book introduces plot devices and techniques Berrow repeated: locked rooms, secret passages, disguises, vanishings and vanishers, a love interest, secret agents, and a reflective narrator keen to play amateur detective with a professional.  Its atmosphere drew on Gibraltar and autobiographical elements become part of his style and inspiration.  Setting is always significant for Berrow and the influence of Gibraltar is strong in his first novels, as is Christchurch and Sydney in the later ones.

In Don't Jump Mr Boland (1954) the character Montague Belmore captures the impact of Sydney's beguiling harbour.

The blanket of fog that always lay on the harbour these mornings had cleared away, the water was as calm and clean and blue as the sky.  The oppressive humidity of summer had gone and the clear warm autumn sun was a caress.  Behind him now, on the other side of the harbour, the city basked in sunshine.
He loved the city.  It had it's faults, too many of them; it was cramped, dirty, overcrowded; it was avaricious, discourteous, rough and tough and graft-ridden; but he loved it.  He loved the world.  He loved life.

Ramble House has been publishing Berrow's work for over ten years.  In 2007 The Footprints of Satan (originally published 1950) was number one on the Honkaku Mystery Best 10, an annual mystery fiction guide to books published in Japan in the previous year."

My thanks go to Prue, and I hope to have more to say about Norman Berrow in the future.


JJ @ The Invisible Event said...

I recently discovered Berrow myself, and reviewed The Bishop's Sword here:

He's a lot of fun, and an author I'm very keen to return to in 2016; it appears he is completely published by Ramble House, too, so once you discover how good he is he'll be easy to track down!

Gavin L. O'Keefe said...

Thanks for this wonderful post about Norman Berrow and his excellent mystery novels. I'm obviously biased, but I will never stop singing the praises of Berrow's books.
And so great to read Prue's biographical information about him; there are more details there than I've seen anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

Ramble House certainly has earned a great deal of praise from mystery, science fiction, horror and fantasy fans.

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, I'm a long-time fan of Ramble House. I've covered a number of their books on this blog, but I should also mention my late father's favourite, Harry Stephen Keeler, whose wacky novels have been extensively reprinted by RH.

J F Norris said...

I'm tooting my own horn again. I rarely have occasion to do so ...ever. I introduced Fender Tucker to Norman Berrow back in 2004 or so. It was right around the time of the Bouchercon held in Chicago. Our booths were right across the aisle from one another and we talked a lot. I loaned him my copy of THE BISHOP'S SWORD with its rare DJ and I gave him a beat up paperback edition of DON'T GO OUT AFTER DARK. These were the first Berrow books published when Fender was still making books using his eccentric handcrafted method. I vaguely remember how I came across Berrow. It was Bob Adey's introduction to the revised LOCKED ROOM MURDERS bibliography on impossible crime novels that did it. I found a slew of the scarce first editions back when I regularly scoured eBay auctions. At the time hardly anyone knew anything about him and I got quite a few titles dirt cheap. Later, I started looking for Max Afford books and I told Gavin O'Keefe about him thinking he would have luck finding them when he was still living in Australia (I think he emigrated and lives in Maine now).

Berrow is an unusual writer, his plots are fascinating but not really ingenious. Many of those I have read were usually too easy to figure out. I saw through much of THE BISHOP'S SWORD'S gimmickry. THREE TIERS OF FANTASY and THE FOOTSTEPS OF SATAN are probably his best books. I've not read nor do I own a copy of DON'T JUMP, MR. BOLAND and this, I think, was Bob Adey's favorite.

Martin Edwards said...

Very interesting, John. Bob has introduced us to so many fascinating books and writers - I'll be doing some tribute posts to him in January. And you too have highlighted some terrific books that otherwise I might have overlooked. I am Jonathan Scrivener and The Grindle Nightmare are among them.

Gavin L. O'Keefe said...

John, I'm doing this belatedly, but I wanted to set the record straight for posterity.
You did, indeed, set Fender and I on the trail of Max Afford's books when we met you at the 2005 Bouchercon in Chicago. So, thanks indeed to you for guiding us to the Afford books.
However, I independently suggested to Fender - well prior to the 2005 Bouchercon - that we reprint Norman Berrow's books. By the time we set up our dealer table at Bouchercon in 2005, we already had many of our Berrow editions available in trade paperback editions and on sale. I was alerted to Berrow some time before when I had seen some Berrow books advertised on the back jackets of other Ward Lock mystery novels (while I was in Australia), and the titles looked intriguing enough to pursue. Of course we all know how rare the first editions are, which is why we began with the revised edition of GHOST HOUSE (a fairly common Berrow book). However, once we were beginning to search for the rest of Berrow's books, I do recall that you provided us with the texts of some of them (as you rightly remembered in your comment above) - so, thank you!
Our interests in Berrow's wonderful mysteries evolved separately, but came together in the nicest possible way.