The Three Tiers of Fantasy – Norman Berrow (1949)

I’ve been wanting to get back to Norman Berrow ever since I read The Footprints of Satan last year; an astounding impossible crime with one of the most satisfying solutions that I had read in a long time.  It’s unfathomable that I’ve let a year go by, but the Berrow books always ended up getting passed up for my most recent acquisition of the moment.  Of course, it didn’t help that I only have a few of them in my library, but rest assured, that number will be doubling come Christmas.

The Three Tiers of Fantasy is escapism at its finest.  Berrow delivers what are essentially three impossible crime novelettes stitched together, although that’s a disservice to the fact that this is very much a story as a whole.  This feels like a longish book (always hard to tell with these modern reprints, with the different form factor and all), and yet with three very unique set ups and investigations, there’s never even a hint of the story dragging.

The book is divided into four sections: the first three featuring impossible crimes, each taking a varied form of impossible disappearance – a man, a room, and even a street.  The fourth section finds series detective Inspector Smith toppling the “tiers” and tying them together.  It’s a nice long denouement, stretching three chapters, and in a sense you’re really being delivered three full solutions.

The first story concerns a man who disappears into thin air while ascending a staircase.  The woman who watched it happen isn’t the only one in disbelief – her story is disbelieved by numerous witnesses who claim that the man never existed in the first place.  Top that off with some locked room shenanigans, and this is one hell of an impossible setup.

Berrow’s cleverness here is that most any experienced mystery reader will be assuming a (doubly) famous explanation to the seemingly invisible man.  Once it becomes apparent that that explanation couldn’t be in play, this is truly a baffling scenario.  In fact, of the three tiers, this is the one that actually stumped me.

The first tier has a nice cozy setup coupled with heroic impossibilities, but the second tier is where the story truly starts to shine.  At this point I think I’ll stop with the descriptions of the impossibilities, as it’s part of the fun to discover how each tier unfolds.  The second tier though is the one that feels most novelish, and will likely stand out in my mind when recalling the book years from now.  Unfortunately I found this one really easy to see through when it came to the trick.  No matter though, as Berrow must be in the top 10 in terms of Golden Age authors whose writing style strikes a chord with me, and really, every page is a splendid middle ground between John Dickson Carr and Christianna Brand.

It’s a pity that the second tier was easy enough to see through, because come the finale, Berrow drops the solution with such swagger that I can just picture him leaning back from the typewriter with a smug leer on his face, basking in the glory.  Hell, he probably “dropped the typewriter”, as they were known to say in those days, and I hope he did.  If you were fooled by this tier then I truly envy you, because that reveal moment would have rung me like a bell.

The third tier is perhaps the lesser of the three, but that’s like picking John Dickson Carr’s worst novel from 1935 (Death Watch, The Hollow Man, The Red Widow Murders, or The Unicorn Murders – so you don’t have to bother looking it up – take your pick).  It’s just as enjoyable of a romp as the stories that came before it, and in fact, this may be the one where we’re flat out having fun.  You see, it’s a puzzle that you must at least kinda-ish pick up on in several ways – although I couldn’t have told you how the headline trick worked – but that’s on purpose.  This is the tier in which Berrow’s tower is supposed to show its cracks, and I admire how the author set it up such that once the weakness in this third tier is identified, the reader is able to suddenly check some boxes with the previous two, and the dominos continue to fall.  It’s a startling appreciation for the mindset of the reader that I’ve seen few writers actually express.

Come the denouement, you almost don’t need a denouement.  But you get one, and it’s a magnificent coast to a finish, as Inspector Smith takes his time dismantling the three puzzles.  I mean, what are we talking, 52 pages?  A 52 page explanation to three separate impossible disappearances?  What other books offer something like that?  The Seven Wonders of Crime perhaps, and yet I still salute The Three Tiers of Fantasy for fully capturing that essence of GAD tradition.

Let me be clear, don’t read The Three Tiers of Fantasy for a masterpiece of impossibility; you’ll likely see through two of the tiers and I imagine some readers will see through all three.  But man, what a ride Berrow offers.  I’d read stories like this all day regardless of whether I saw through the illusion or not.  Berrow just makes it that fun.

So yeah, a year between Berrow books was a mistake.  Don’t be surprised if the next one is within a month (although man, I just bought so many other books that I’m dying to read).  Perhaps I’ve just read Berrow’s two best books (as I’ve seen some suggest), but he’s emerging as the author that I absolutely have to read.

7 thoughts on “The Three Tiers of Fantasy – Norman Berrow (1949)”

  1. Ahh, and what a method of explaining everything at the end, too. Just so much fun. I didn’t twig the mechanics of the crimes, but Berrow hints at a certain other aspect of them so hard that even I noticed. But that somehow made it more exciting. That’s a good point about the (intentional?) weakness of the third tier. I wonder if that’s how the whole thing started?

    “I really want to put that in a book” ->
    “But it’s so implausible and easy to see through” ->
    “But what if that was the point?” ->
    “Well then surely I’d have to build up to the implausibility in stages, tiers if you will” ->
    “Hmmm…”

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I’m delighted that you got so much out of it. The construction of the tiers is one of the most brilliant conceits in this subgenre — flaws in the schemes an’ all, it’s so marvellously worked — and Berrow strikes the perfect balance of mystery and propulsion to keep it all moving near-seamlessly. Wonderful stuff, the like of which we see all too rarely.

    Here’s hoping you continue to strike Berrow-themed gold in your adventures.

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      1. You’ve had the good fortune to see him at or near what I suspect is his best, too. I’m sorry to say that his pre-WW2 stuff isn’t really up to the same standards and, some nice lines and an amusing meta element aside, the Michael and Fleur Revel books have almost all fallen a little flat for me (the last one I attempted I didn’t even finish).

        The Smith books are the best of what I’ve read to date, and three of the five (Sword, Tiers, Footprints) absolutely delightful books and wonderful examples of the genre. The weakest of the four I’ve read involves people being attacked by a giant thumb, though, so for all its weaknesses it gets by on bravado alone…!

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  3. I pretty much agree with everything that has been said here and the only thing I can add is that, if you enjoyed The Three Tiers of Fantasy, you have to find a copy of The Sleeping Bacchus by Hilary St. George Saunders. Another mystery caper with three impossible crimes in which the fun keeps piling on. It doesn’t have the elaborate and magnificent denouement, but in every other regard it’s as close as you can get to The Three Tiers of Fantasy.

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