The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow

The Footprints of Satan: Berrow, Norman: 9781605431949: Books

It is a sick joke history loves to play, and it’s a joke that every lover of the Golden Age crime novel has to find it in himself to laugh at every now and again. It’s hardly funny — and in fact quite frustrating — how the spirit of literature can find it in itself to sleep at night when it’s constantly bullying skilled authors into obscurity; and, having recently read The Footprints of Satan by Norman Berrow, I can add to the list yet another victim of Father Time’s mischief, and another Golden Age specialist of impossible crimes, that if the world were fair I’d have known about well before the damned year of 2020. It’s only thanks to Jim Noy of The Invisible Event fame gushing over The Footprints of Satan, and again gushing over The Footprints of Satan, and definitely a few more times gushing over The Footprints of Satan in the Facebook group “Golden Age Detection” that I took notice, and boy am I glad I did! Jim has yet to steer me wrong.

The Footprints of Satan is the fifth and final mystery elucidated by one of Berrow’s three series detectives, Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith. Gregory Cushing is a grieving bachelor who, in the emotional throes off divorce, seeks out a home in the quiet mountainous rurals of Winchingham with his uncle Jack Popplewell. Though shocked to find that his eccentric uncle is more than just a little odd, but in fact a serial drunkard haunted by the spirit of a woman hanged in Winchingham generations ago known only as “The Blue Woman”, Popplewell’s antics prove to be far from the most pressing thing interrupting his vacation. A skeevy, (impliciately) womanizing businessman commits suicide at the very tree where The Blue Woman herself was hung. And, to make matters worse, it happens at the end of a mile long track of bipedal goat-prints that inexplicably and impossibly both begin and end in the middle of a vast expanse of virgin, untrodden snow, and which, to top it all off, makes impossible trips through sold walls and walking on top of weak hedges that “couldn’t hold a baby kitten”. The bizarre mystery has the religious, superstitious and metaphysically scientific minds all wondering if the devil came to England, just as he did 95 years prior….

The locked room mystery, and the “puzzle-oriented” school of mystery writing in general, has a pretty rough mission statement. Making a puzzling crime that is simultaneously complex but also digestible, and at the same time simultaneously a good faith effort to be “fairplay”, but clever enough that the audience feels accomplished if they solve it, and satisfied in the odd chance that they “lose”. It’s a weird balancing act that even some of the best and most accomplished Golden Age detective novels entirely pull off; I would go so far as to say, however, that The Footprints of Satan is in this regards a smashing success.

The introduction of the impossible footprints is followed by a roughly 20-30 page description of the villagers following it through to the foot of the very tree from which the victim hung. I can proudly say that at the conclusion of this description, I was able to figure out the solution down to fingering the culprit. However, I wasn’t in the slightest put off by the novel because of this; on the contrary, the solution was clever in all of the ways where I felt like a sleuth myself for sniffing it out so quickly.

The solution reminded me immensely of my experience with The 8 Mansion Murders that I talked on length about in the group; the core artifice — the mechanical method through which the impossibility was accomplished — is over-obvious merely because of the nature of the crime itself, and that’s the ONLY reason why the solution on the whole is easy to figure out. Both novels use a fairly over-played method in their respective impossible crimes, but both feature a strong misdirection that immediately makes the over-played method seem impossible. Both do a good job of making you doubt your knee-jerk reaction to the set-up of the mystery, and it’s only when you stubbornly stick to your original idea that you can solve the crime with some light guesswork. However, where The Footprints of Satan finds itself as a superior work of impossible crime writing is in the nature of the misdirection itself; The 8 Mansion Murders had a brilliant misdirection, but it was a trick that occurred secondarily to the locked room solution itself, where the actual method of committing the crime is still bogstandard and uninteresting. The Footprints of Satan instead builds its entire solution around a trick that itself makes the core artifice seem impossible, an application of a played-out concept that is brilliant and novel and inexorably integrated with the misdirection itself so that the whole affair feels more concise, cohesive and inspired.

You’ll probably notice that I’m focusing entirely on the core impossibility, and that’s because as far as the reading goes I found it a bit hard-going in places. A particular character has an oppressive and overbearing presence that only serves to mildly confuse the detectives, annoy the reader and extend the book by 30 pages. While she introduces interesting concepts of metaphysics, it quickly feels like she starts to retread the same ground time and time again. And quite a bit too much of the book feels like the detective simply forgetting that his job is to explain how a human committed the crime, and humoring the superstitions of the old woman. I can’t quite shake the feeling the book would’ve been more satisfying as a concise novella without the presence of Miss Forbes…

Nonetheless, while it drags a bit in places (especially around the half-way mark), the book is still readable enough to not detract from the experience. The puzzle is well-clued (perhaps too well-clued), interesting and inspired, the characters are generally endearing, and the plotting is superb. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve been thoroughly satisfied by a “footprints in the snow/sand” impossible crime, so that may make me a bit biased towards The Footprints of Satan, but for the time being I’ll name this my standard to beat in that particular sub-sub-genre. Thoroughly enjoyable impossible crime, though it doesn’t come clouse to ousting my all-time favorite, The Death of Jezebel. Highly recommended to literally anybody with any amount of interest in the form. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to make a few impulsive purchases of Berrow’s books from Amazon.

P.S. – I know it’s been a while since I’ve uploaded. Holidays, family, returning to university and general life-being-life-ness has caused me to go into an impromptu New Years hiatus. This post marks my return to a regular upload schedule starting this Sunday. Look forward to a review of the mystery video game, “Paradise Killer”, and of more Berrow novels to come!

18 thoughts on “The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow

  1. thegreencapsule January 20, 2021 / 10:23 pm

    How you solved this is beyond me. Congratulations, although it was fun being fooled. And “fooled” is a great description, because I sure felt like one when I realized just how simple it all was.

    I have to think that if someone makes a list of top twenty impossible crimes and The Footprints of Satan isn’t on it, that simply means they haven’t read the book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Isaac Stump January 20, 2021 / 10:45 pm

      If I were to ever feel inspired to make a top 10 or 20 list of impossible crimes, in spite of me more-or-less accidentallying onto the solution, I think The Footprints of Satan has a strong running.

      The impossibility was super inspired, and it always makes me giddy to see writers experiment with clever applications of solutions that, without that ingenious touch, could fall short.

      I don’t feel comfortable making any top 10 list as it stands, though. I’ve got far too many books in my backlog and I’m certain at least one of them would deserve on the list. I want to be sure I can make as educated an opinion as I can!

      I do know that The Death of Jezebel would be a shoe-in for the number one slot, to nobody’s surprise. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

      • thegreencapsule January 21, 2021 / 12:21 am

        You can never be comfortable making a top ten list; you’ve only ever got what you’ve read so far. I’d be sad if I ever felt comfortable in it, because it would mean that I’d mined the genre dry. You’ve still got a lot to say in spite of it, and it’s been enjoyable to read. And yeah… Death of Jezebel will always be in the running. In the meantime, stick close to John Dickson Carr (34-46), and a little Paul Halter never hurt anyone.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Isaac Stump January 22, 2021 / 2:12 am

        Yes, I suppose you’re right. My greatest fault is I never take the first step to do anything unless I’m 100% certain I can do it right. If you’re always waiting to feel prepared, you’ll never get anything done though. I suppose I can take a stab at it some time nearer the end of 2021.

        It means a lot to know you enjoy reading my little write-ups on the impossible crime genre! I only hope I don’t run out of things to say.


  2. JJ January 21, 2021 / 4:58 am

    I’m delighted to think that I’m bringing people to Norman Berrow, who is one of the genre’s better “nearly great” authors. His early works lean heavily — heavily — into secret passages, but he hits gold now and then in the most gloriously inspired ways.

    I’ve said elsewhere that he’s not exactly the best misdirector in the business — though this one fooled me, mainly because I was too caught up in it to remember to look ahead — but for the sheer integration of impossible crimes into a quotidian milieu I think he’s unbeatable.

    Welcome to the Berrowverse! Mayeb you, me, and Ben can do a podcast on him one of these days…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isaac Stump January 22, 2021 / 6:22 pm

      That sounds great! I worry, though, that I don’t have much to say on Berrow that you haven’t already covered at length! Heck, you guys are all so well-read, at this point my blog is just re-reviewing books you’ve all already reviewed! Hopefully when I’m finally fluent in Japanese and can start reading some honkaku novels I can put out some big surprises, but for now I just have to rely on my discussion posts to stand out in any meaningful way!

      Liked by 1 person

      • JJ January 23, 2021 / 5:36 am

        Most blogging is simply re-reviewing stuff already reviewed elsewhere — it’s a range of opinions we need, so don’t lose hope on that front. Meaningful discussion is, as you say, key; just wait until you start writing about Ellery Queen….

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hussain January 21, 2021 / 11:22 am

    The occult


    • Hussain January 21, 2021 / 11:36 am

      Aagh! Posted by mistake. Feel free to delete the above comment

      I was saying that just reading the title and your 2nd paragraph makes me excited to try the story. I love detective stories that flourish the impossibilities with supernatural overtones so that “only a (creature) could’ve done it!” I hope to buy this soon. Have you read The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire? I remember reading that it has an impossible footprints problem as well. Only a vampire who walks through walls could’ve done the murder!


  4. scottkratner January 21, 2021 / 4:03 pm

    I think the fact that That Footprints of Satan, Death of Jezebel, Till Death Do Us Part, and The Problem of the Green Capsule are all missing from the “Ed Hoch list”— while the likes of The King is Dead made it— is indication of a flaw in the process of compiling such a list. A highly-esteemed work which has only been read by a few of the panelists simply has less chance than a minimally-accepted work known by all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • thegreencapsule January 21, 2021 / 4:40 pm

      Technically The Problem of the Green Capsule isn’t an impossible crime though… although that applies to a surprising number of book from the two big lists. But yes, one of the greatest mysteries of all time.

      I’ve of course thought about how we should all collaborate on such a list, but it strikes me that you really need two:
      – Best impossible crime novels
      – Best novels featuring an impossible crime
      The two are quite different. Whistle Up the Devil certainly deserves to be on the first list, but not the second. Murder on the Way deserves to be on the second list, but not the first.

      Liked by 2 people

      • scottkratner January 21, 2021 / 4:44 pm

        I agree on both points— and I should have left Green Capsule out. My major point, however, is that the Hoch list unfairly (yes, I do believe there’s a proper use of the word) reflected upon the expertise of its panelists, by not including a mechanism to account for the brilliant-but-obscure.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Isaac Stump January 22, 2021 / 2:07 am

        I would absolutely be delighted to collaborate on some sort of Golden Age Detection group vote on the best impossible crime novels!

        I’m sure Scott has plenty of ideas on how to best organize such a vote, too. Though I think Scott has admitted on a few occasions that he doesn’t really like the impossible crime genre all that much on the whole.


      • scottkratner January 22, 2021 / 3:11 am

        I think I do know of a few poll tabulation systems by which lack of universal familiarity is not so great a handicap. Of course, none of them are perfect, but I think there are better procedures.

        I have nothing against impossible crime novels, and many of my favorite mysteries involve impossible crimes (He Who Whispers, Death of Jezebel, Till Death Do Us Part), but I don’t consider myself PARTICULARLY drawn to this sub genre. And I’m not nearly as widely-read as most of the rest of you… which is all the more reason why such a poll should always compensate for the highly-regarded-but-less-widely-familiar-titles… otherwise voters like me give an advantage to those with the greatest reputations.


      • JJ January 22, 2021 / 7:24 am

        A good place to begin with such an endeavour would be to read everything (in English…) on the Roland Lacourbe list and begin to omit/retain from there. I’m in the process of trying to complete the first part of this endeavour, but two or three books remain elusive 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • thegreencapsule January 22, 2021 / 1:57 pm

        Rather than a flat out poll, here’s an idea for a collaborative blog style approach. People contribute a nomination, justifying why they think the book is worthy. Other participants write a short bit either showing their support, or arguing why it isn’t worthy. That all gets wrapped up into a blog post.

        Each nomination would follow this approach, and since each blog post would have multiple contributors, it would lend an air of fun/critical conversation. Assuming we have 20-30 nominations, this could play out for well over a year. Then, yeah, we could do some sort of vote/ranking – that would be fun – but the true meat would be in the posts.

        Liked by 1 person

      • scottkratner January 22, 2021 / 7:51 pm

        These are great ideas, but I’m thinking of a mechanism in the process of calculation itself. For instance, a friend of mine had a poll (the subject is of no importance) in which participants listed their ten favorites, 1 being their top choice, 10 their last choice. They were assigned points based on the numbers given (e.g. a 3rd place position is granted 3 points). In calculation, all entries listed not appearing on all lists was assigned 11 points on all remaining lists. All points were totaled, and the entry with the lowest total was granted first place, the second lowest second, etc…

        A work unfamiliar to most participants would still be at a disadvantage, but such a system significantly reduces that disadvantage. Of course, it’s still far from perfect— few people like their #1 choice exactly 10 times as much as their #10 choice— but this type of system does much to correct for this problem, and there are formulas which further compensate and give more appropriate weight. At any rate, it’s a helluva lot more accurate than the “title that shows up on the most lists” approach.

        I think in conjunction with Ben’s approach this might work well, with an initial foundation of Jim’s idea.

        I believe than in conjunction

        Liked by 1 person

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