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.