Back in 2020, I reviewed The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) by Norman Berrow, a British-born New Zealand mystery writer, who together with Max Afford pushed the frontiers of the impossible crime story in the Antipodean region – producing about a dozen locked room novels and short stories between them. That may not sound like much, but Afford and Berrow crafted some very imaginative, original and outright fantastical impossible crime fiction that stand out even today. Although, it should be mentioned Berrow's homespun brand of impossible crime fiction has not unfairly been criticized for being better at stating the impossible mysteries than explaining them. Afford definitely was the better of the two when it came to explaining his sealed rooms like The Dead Are Blind (1937) and "The Vanishing Trick" (1948), but there's something insanely attractive about Berrow's ability to parade them around.
Berrow had an undeniable knack for dreaming up inventive and fanciful miracle problems involving vanishing landmarks, time-slips and the devil's hoof-marks trekking through an impossible obstacle course in the snow.
The Three Tiers of Fantasy is a mystery caper anticipating Hilary St. George Saunders' The Sleeping Bacchus (1951) and Edward D. Hoch's "The Theft of the White Queen's Menu" (1983) as they all string together three impossible disappearances that include one or two large objects. Hoch's short story concerns the inexplicable taking of a roomful of furniture, while the homeowner had his back turned for a moment. Saunders found a way to lose a police van complete with occupants from a guarded stretch of road, but Berrow took things a step further in The Three Tiers of Fantasy by making a whole room vanish and apparently wiped an entire street out of existence. The balance between quantity and quality is always a thorny issue with these multiple impossible crime stories and the reason why they tend to be one-offs among a writer's work (*), but Berrow upped the ante in his next novel comprising of no less than four seemingly impossible incidents. I finally wanted to take a look at that novel after reading Wadsworth Camp's House of Fear (1916), which is one of the earliest mysteries to pile on locked rooms and impossible incidents.
The Bishop's Sword (1948) is the second novel to feature Berrow's regrettably short-lived series-character, Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith, whose base of operation is the small, mountainous environs of a country town called Winchingham – described as "a fair sample of rural nomenclature." Miss Antonia “Toni” Meridew, a London girl, is a new arrival and came to Winchingham to take up the position of companion-secretary to Mrs. Miriam Pendlebury, "a vigorous-spoken woman woman of sixty with a determined chin and a pile of snow-white hair," at Hilltop House. Mrs. Pendlebury household consists of her son, Eric Pendlebury, who's not oblivious to Toni's good looks ("don't stare at Miss Meridew like that!") and her spinster sister, Miss Emmeline Forbes. Miss Forbes has a keen interest in esoteric matters and mysticism ("illusions, realities—what are they?"). Over dinner, Toni learns that the place houses two treasures, "a greater and lesser," of considerably monetary and historical value.
Firstly, there's the lesser treasure: a magnificent necklace gifted by Mrs. Pendlebury's late husband on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and which contained some of the finest pearls in the country. So worth a pretty packet. Secondly, the Bishop's Sword and is considered "more of a national institution than a private possession." A sword of the finest Toledo steel in a red velvet scabbard adorned with gold curlicues and gemstones, which belonged to a distant and infamous ancestor of the Pendleburys, Richard Buckstone, who was an ordained pirate. If the legend is to believed, Buckstone murdered a Spanish nobleman with his bare hands to get possession of the sword and a curse has rested on it ever since he died. Whoever draws the sword shall die very soon after and the last victim was Eric's great-uncle only sixty years ago. So the bedeviled weapon was sealed away inside a cunningly made, one-piece, casket of glass and steel hooked up to a loud burglar alarm. But its best protection is it's priceless reputation as no fence would dare touch it. Or so they reason.
So the stage is set when a nighttime prowler begins to poke around Hilltop House and provides the story with its first of four impossible situations. Toni is awakened in the middle of the night by sounds, creaking floorboards and shuffling footsteps as if someone is sneaking about in the hallway outside. When she goes to have a peek, Toni gasps when seeing the door of the empty room next to hers being closed and "caught a glimpse of a hand on the inside door knob drawing it shut." She rouses Eric from his bedroom without losing sight of the other door, but, upon entering the room together, they find it as empty and unoccupied as always – only exit is a window securely latched. So how did the intruder vanish from a locked and watched room as that person could not possibly have snicked over the catch after stepping out of the window. These nightly incidents come to the attention of Mrs. Pendlebury and that brings Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith to Hilltop House as well as drawing another character into the case as Toni is not the only new arrival in town.
Matthew Strange is an Anglo-Tibetan mystic, or wizard, who has lived Tibet where he acquired "power and mastery of mind undreamt of in our materialistic hemisphere." Now he occupies a small, stone house practically next door of the Pendleburys and brought along six Chinese disciples. Who are known collectively as the Six Virtues. Strange becomes involved when the nighttime prowler returns to Hilltop House, but disturbs the sleeping Mrs. Pendlebury and flees from the house. The alarm is raised and the police constable posted nearby finds Eric and Strange standing not far from the body of the Pendlebury's gardener. Smith uncovers damning evidence at the scene incriminating Strange and arrests him for murder. So the string impossibilities all centering on the supposed supernatural abilities of Strange.
During the inquest, the magistrate tells Strange he will be given an opportunity to make a statement at the next hearing, but Strange tells the magistrate he'll be speaking to him at two o'clock the following morning at his house. While under lock, key and guard at the police station. That night, Strange apparently appears in the flesh to the magistrate and even forcibly restrains him. But when he makes his exit and a telephone goes out to the police station, the magistrate is informed Strange is still lying comfortably in his cell. A trick Strange repeats with the Chief Constable during which he tells him that the Bishop's Sword has been taken from its sealed, unbroken casket. When he calls the house to check, it's confirmed the casket is empty. Lastly, Strange impossibly disappears from inside the excavated cave, while the only entrance and exit was being observed. But how does it all stack up?
JJ, of The Invisible Event, noted in his review of Don't Go Out After Dark (1950) Berrow "really does deserve credit for how neatly he fits the unlikely into a small community, always knowing that base intent will be behind it somewhere." That's very much the case here as it begins as a small household thrown into turmoil by prowlers, murder and eastern mysticism, but The Bishop's Sword is arguably a better detective story than locked room mystery and the non-impossible plot-elements regrettably get a bit lost in the melee or miracles. For example, the missing, three-cornered murder weapon and the triangular indentation in the corner of the rose bed offer an intriguing little puzzle and how it linked up to another incident is quite clever and satisfying. Admittedly, the whole picture hinged on a big coincidence, but coincidences do happen from time to time as wires gets crossed. What holds the book back is actually the profusion of impossibilities, or rather, the lack of quality when it comes to the explanations.
First of all, the disappearing prowler from the watched and locked bedroom is the easiest one to solve. When the hand closed the door, I half-expected the situation would turn on a misunderstanding and Toni unknowingly caught a glimpse of the hand in a hallway mirror closing the door to another room. After all, she was new to the house and the incident happened in the middle of the night, but the subsequent investigation of the room left very little doubt the solution had to be one of the most routine locked room-tricks on record. The disappearance of the sword from its sealed casket poses as much of a challenge as the disappearing prowler once you learn how useless one of the security measures really is and the same goes for the vanishing act inside the cave, but enjoyed the scene in which Smith worked out the solution to the cave puzzle "on the floor of the living-room in his own home with a set of chessmen and ashtray" that represent the various characters and cave. While these three impossible problems were ridiculously easy to piece together, they were at least legitimate and proper locked room mysteries. Just not very challenging or impressive and recall the slightly underwhelming vanishings from Herbert Brean's Wilders Walk Away (1948). So had the story limited itself to those three disappearances, The Bishop's Sword would have emerged as a well-constructed, immensely entertaining and balanced second-string mystery novel that cleverly worked a trio of decent, but not especially challenging, locked room mysteries into the plot – which would have made for a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable detective story. What dragged The Bishop's Sword dangerously close to becoming a third-rate, pulp-style detective is the hackneyed answer to Strange's psychic projections while imprisoned. Berrow had enough genre awareness to know what he did is neither acceptable nor particular fair and to drag it out in 1948 is inexcusably stupid. It was inexcusably stupid and hopelessly out of date when Robert Brennan used it two decades previously in The Toledo Dagger (1927)!
And, yet, despite being slightly disgusted over the psychic projections and conflicted over the overall mixed quality of the plot, I really enjoyed The Bishop's Sword. Whatever shortcomings the complete picture has, Berrow definitely understood how to play a mysterious situation up to full effect and certainly was not inapt when it came to handling a complicated, multi-threaded plot full of moving parts that mostly played fair with the reader. The problem is that the story swings back and forth between the good, the bad and just plain average, which makes it hard to recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone except seasoned locked room and Golden Age mystery fans. So decide at your own discretion. Anyway, The Bishop's Sword was fun enough to move The Spaniard's Thumb (1949) to the top of my wishlist and plan to revisit The Footprints of Satan (1950) sometime later this year. So stay tuned!
*: writers who have two or more multiple impossible crime (three or more) novels to their name appear to be a bit more common in the non-English speaking world and especially Japanese writers, ingenious as ever, have made the multiple impossible crime story their own. Their increasing availability is beginning to rub off on the Western locked room mysteries with such recent publications as James Scott Byrnside's The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020), A. Carver's The Author is Dead (2022) and Jim Noy's The Red Death Murders (2022). Some have a distinctly Japanese flavoring to their storytelling, plots and characters.
Sorry for this messy, choppy and rambling post, but foolishly started writing it right after reading the first few chapters and became progressively more conflicted forcing me to rewrite and move around parts of it. I'll try to be somewhat coherent next time.