Thursday, July 27, 2017


THE BISHOP'S SWORD by Norman Berrow (1948)

Reviewed by Kate Jackson

When Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith finds a puzzling case he seems to find three of them at a time. This time, all three are real puzzlers. (1) How did someone steal the priceless Bishop’s Sword from the hermetically sealed glass case? (2) How did a man who was in jail visit a police official at night at his home? And (3) how did seven men enter the one-exited cave and only six come out?

This is another book choice inspired by JJ at The Invisible Event and definitely gives value for money for the number of locked room/impossible crimes/scenarios it includes. The book takes place in and around a country town called Winchingham and the story’s setup has a range of familiar and unfamiliar characters. There is the new young companion-secretary, Toni Meridew who has come to work for the elderly Mrs Miriam Pendlebury. The latter was definitely a character I enjoyed as she is not the typical tyrannical parent and is actually quite humorous.

Within this household there is also Miriam’s son Eric and sister, Emmeline Forbes, the last being interested in mysticism. Eric immediately seems very taken by Toni and this attraction becomes a source of comedy for the reader, as Miriam rebukes him mildly for it: ‘Don’t stare at Miss Meridew like that!’ Nearby there is also a mystery man, a mystic called Matthew Strange and his six Chinese followers, who are busy working on preparing a cave for their leader. Although Matthew is described as sometimes wearing flowing robes, it is interesting to note that he is also said to have ‘looked like a cross between a retired banker and an absent minded professor.’ Miriam’s home houses two valuable items, an expensive pearl necklace and a family sword which was:

‘sheathed in a red velvet scabbard decorated with gold filigree and thickly encrusted with either real or imitation jewels. The wide, curving hand guard was also apparently of gold and studded with more jewels, and about the hand-grip was more red velvet worn and stained by the clutch of dead and gone fingers…’

It’s not surprising that Toni finds this ‘an incongruous object… [for a] household of women.’ The sword also has an interesting backstory, having been gained by an ancestor who was a priest turned pirate. The sword is supposed to be impossible to steal due to the difficulty of selling it on and also due to practical reasons surrounding the cabinet it is in.

Yet life does not remain tranquil at Mrs Pendlebury’s with there apparently being an intruder in the garden and house at night, the latter of which seems to have disappeared out of a sealed room. But due to the house proud Forbes and the conscientious gardener any potential prints are removed. It is only a few nights later that there is anything to investigate, which is not surprising considering Miriam’s pearls are stolen and the gardener is found murdered with a blunt instrument.

An early suspect for the police is Strange, which is to be expected when there is so much circumstantial evidence against, including the fact the pearls were found in his pocket. In itself this seems a fairly open and shut case for DI Smith, but when Strange claims in court that through projecting his psyche he will visit the magistrate events turn towards the bizarre, especially when it seems that he has done just that, while the police swear that he was locked in a police cell. What is more disturbing is that he is able to repeat this action and bring disturbing news each time, including another theft at the Pendlebury’s…

Is Strange the genuine thing or a phoney? Have the police got the wrong man after all? Will DI Smith and his cohorts reach the solution in time? The solving of this case takes a lot of brain power from DI Smith, breaking down the multiple layers of illusion and assumptions which have been built up around the case. Moreover, there is another perhaps even more fantastical act which I haven’t mentioned but cranked up mine and DI Smith’s befuddlement immensely.

With such confusing events coming up with a credible solution was always going to be no easy task and overall I think Berrow handled this area well, devising an interesting solution which did not make the explanation of the crime dry and overly detailed. However, I do think there is one element of the solution which feels a little bit like a cheat or perhaps a fairer way of putting it would be that the element was convenient. Although on the other hand I do realise that this element needed to be incorporated to explain away the most peculiar aspects of the case.

The narrative style for a locked room/ impossible crime novel where the mechanics of the crimes are given higher priority, was good and didn’t become too technical. However I think one area which could have been developed concerns the characters, as the ending of the novel did terminate rather abruptly and could have benefited from a rounding off or up of the characters. Moreover, I think although Berrow sets up a number of characters at the start of the story, he tends to ignore, overlook or possibly even forget some of them as the story progresses, focusing on a much smaller group. Consequently I think the relationships between the characters could have been developed/ included more. DI Smith though is a likeable and engaging detective character and it is enjoyable watching him work his way through the investigation, tackling events which are fairly mind boggling.

Kate Jackson is a teacher and mystery lover from the north of England who blogs at Cross Examining Crime. This review was originally published on her blog, and is reprinted here with her kind permission.  You can follow Kate on Twitter @armchairsleuth 

Note: the cover image used above is for the 2009 reprint of this book from Ramble House (which was the edition Kate read, and the one now available).

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