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!