The Secret Dancer – Norman Berrow (1936)

I’ve been intrigued by the title of this book for a while, and I can’t quite explain why.  There’s something to it – a haunting quality, maybe similar to The Last of Philip Banter or The Shade of Time – where it strikes this chord of curiosity and I have to find out what it means.  Granted, you can’t judge a book by its… err, title, but like some nice cover art, a well chosen name can add some extra allure to a read.

Of course, it helps that I’ve loved the books by Norman Berrow that I’ve read so far.  He has a way with words and can turn out a memorable line to rival the best of them – see also Theodore Roscoe, Anthony Berkeley, Anthony Boucher, Christianna Brand, and – in his first few decades – John Dickson Carr.  I’m astounded that it’s been over a year since I last picked up anything by Berrow, as what I’ve read so far places him towards the top authors of the Golden Age.

The Secret Dancer does indeed feature some of Berrow’s brilliant prose, which is impressive given that it was written towards the very start of a twenty novel career that stretched approximately as many years.   Within mere pages, I remembered just what I loved about the author, which is that ability create sentences that I always feel like I should be jotting down in a notebook to savor years later.  Well, the other thing that I love about Berrow are his creative mysteries (devil footprints in the snow, disappearing rooms…), but honestly, The Secret Dancer isn’t one of them.

The story unfolds over the course of a three hour theatrical production; not so much a play, but an over the top menagerie of dancing, singing, and scantily dressed women at Walden’s Mexican Theatre.  Somebody has it out for one of the lead ladies, as she narrowly misses being crushed by a falling light fixture, and then dodges a poisoning attempt when another unfortunate soul swipes her drink.  Detective Inspector Courtenay happens to be in the audience and is soon back stage investigating the murder attempts.

There’s something that I just couldn’t stand about Courtenay.  Norman Berrow seems to want you to like the detective, but perhaps tries to make too much of him.  Courtenay a bit too affable, a bit too dapper, and a bit annoying.  Within minutes of investigating the case he seems to have the entire backstage layout down pat, knows who’s who of the hundreds of cast and stage hands, and has pet theories on various motives and deceits playing out behind the scenes.

Which is a bit funny, because nearly a half dozen murders end up playing out directly under his watch.  Yeah, people are dropping left and right at Walden’s Mexican Theatre. Somehow the audience never catches on, despite three incidents occurring directly on stage.  The big music numbers keep on going, undeterred by a dozen or so cops milling about and the coroner making more stops than a delivery driver.  By the time that the body count settles down and the killer is nabbed, you’d think that Courtenay’s badge would be toast, but instead we get the classic “I had to let the final murder play out to have conclusive evidence” bit.

You could say that there’s a high enough body count that the story is always moving along, but despite decent writing on Berrow’s part, this one just didn’t click for me.  Come the end we get a limp denouement – the kind featuring a few dozen pages of explanation, but without the feeling of a clever revelation in sight.  A killer is identified, Courtenay explains their movements throughout the night down to the last second, and that’s about it.  Oh yeah – and the title of the book: it doesn’t really factor into anything, which was disappointing.

The Secret Dancer is a far cry from what I loved about Berrow in books like The Three Tiers of Fantasy or The Footprints of Satan.  The writing was fine, but there just wasn’t any of that creativity.  I suspect I’ll find that spark again with books like The Bishop’s Sword and The Spaniard’s Thumb – impossible crime novels featuring Berrow’s much more appealing detective Lancelot Carolus Smith – although now I’m a bit less sure about the dozen or so other Berrow books that I’ve collected.  Well, I can’t let one middle of the road read put me off on an author.

4 thoughts on “The Secret Dancer – Norman Berrow (1936)”

  1. I feel like Courtenay was a prototype of Smith, and Berrow abandoned the former after realising how he could be improved. Also, as you say, I suppose having a detective go into future novels with so much blood on his hands would be a tough sell.

    I also can’t disagree with your summary of this one: it’s…fine — and if you have the other Courtenay novel, One Thrilling Night, be prepared for a title that is thoroughly misused! So far, the Smith novels represent that best of Berrow, but I still have three of four from the end of his career to go and am hopeful that he avoided the late career slump which, like, every other author ever has been subjected to.

    I’m not sure which ones you have, but for my money the best non-Smiths at present are The Terror in the Fog, his final Bill Hamilton novel, and Murder in the Melody, featuring Michael and Fleur Revel. But, as you say, even middle of the road Berrow has some wonderful prose and great ideas; he’s rarely less than entertaining.

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    1. I read your review and I think that we’re aligned on this one. It’s a perfectly good read (although Courtenay grated on me, as did the phonetic New York accent), but it’s just missing some clever bit of misdirection. Throw in even a mediocre trick – say from your favorite Christie: Death on the Nile – and this becomes a read I’d recommend.

      As for late career Berrow, I enjoyed The Lady’s in Danger, even though it wasn’t a conventional mystery. I suspect that by the late 40s Berrow had honed his craft and knew how to write something pretty solid. He seemed to duck out rather suddenly, so I’m hoping there wasn’t time for a later career slump. I am a bit wary about some plot descriptions that sound like they might involve gangs of thieves (Claws of the Cougar, I think?), as that’s never really been my thing.

      Oh, by the way, for those looking to complete their Norman Berrow collections: three times now I’ve stumbled upon Amazon selling random new Berrow books for $7.99 (normal price is in the $17-20 range). This was many months apart, and I’m guessing that they run some sort of occasional sale on the less popular titles.

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      1. Prices drop randomly and briefly on Amazon, I’ve never quite understood why. It seems unlikely that someone would wake up one morning and go “Today — today shall be the day I halve the price of two little-read detective novels from the 1930s” only to wake up the following day wracked with regret at their folly and hastily reverse the reduction and hope no-one ever speaks to them about it. But then what do I know?

        Next for me and Berrow is Don’t Jump, Mr Boland! — an impossible vanishing of a man who jumps over a cliff. With any luck, that’ll bear out our hopes of latter career Norm. Fingers crossed!

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