I hear your footsteps
What a spooky sound
I hear the stairs creak
I'm in trouble now
"Foot Steps" (Kitadai Momoko)
To be honest, I loved the thumbnail of the cover of today's book a lot better than the illustration at full size. The composition of the cover is great, but the actual drawing is a bit rough.
Norman Berrow was born in the UK, but moved down under soon after his birth, where he eventually became a fairly prolific impossible crime author. This is the first time I read anything by him, but I have to admit: when I first heard he was from New Zealand, I was expecting a story set there, so I was a bit surprised when I realized that The Footprints of Satan was set in a quaint little English town. Ah well, at least the donkey Boomer is named after a boomerang (because he always finds his way back).
The Footprints of Satan is a novel in the Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith series and at least preceded by The Bishop's Sword (as several references are made), but can be read perfectly standalone. On the whole, I think The Footprints of Satan is an okay story. Its biggest merit is definitely the atmophere: the way the story slowly builds to the appearance of the marks, the realization that these marks aren't natural and finally, the discovery of a dead body is great. The suggestion of the supernatural is done quite well here, with a fairly entertaining character who keeps ensuring everyone, including the police, the death was caused by the ghost of a witch, while she refers to fields like philosophy and history. On the downside, some might find the initial build-up a bit slow, because nobody dies until about a third in the book.
Though now I think about it, the characters in this novel were in general all quite funny. It's not slapstick comedy or really witty writing, but the banter between the characters is acutally quite amusing.
The puzzle of the mysterious prints is an alluring one that includes quite entertaining links with the devil, but if you look exclusively at the puzzle element, I think a lot of readers will realize it's also a very simple one. In fact, the very first idea I got in my head about the whole case, including the identity of the culprit, turned out to be correct. It's basically the first solution most people would come up with given this particular impossible crime situation and there is little to make it really unique. In that sense, I'd say that The Footprints of Satan was a bit disappointing as it took the easiest way out of the situation, though I have to say that the book is also very fairly clued (which also showed me I was on the right track as I was reading it) and there's definitely nothing unfair going here.
Disappearing footprints in the snow is of course one of the better known versions of the impossible crime in mystery fiction, so in a way, doing a story on the trope means you 'challenge' all those who have tried before you. Mystery fiction might not be academic research, but it'd be nice if in terms of puzzle plot, The Footprints of Satan had shown a bit more inspiration, because while it's a competently constructed puzzle (that is: a puzzle consisting of a problem, its solution, and clues leading up to the solution), it lacks a bit of punch. Of course, not all mystery stories need to feature shocking solutions. I've enjoyed many mystery stories that were very "nice" to the reader, where you could feel the writer was leading the reader in the correct way because they simply wanted someone to solve their story, but The Footprints of Satan is like a kid on school that does okay, but could've done much better, as the initial set-up is quite compelling.
I quite liked the map on the back of Ramble House's edition of the book by the way. Apparently, the map is not part of the original book, but an addition by Ramble House, but it's definitely appreciated. Less a fan of the missing page (two sides) in the middle of the book (a POD mistake, I guess).
To recap: The Footprints of Satan's puzzle plot is a bit on the easy side, but depending on how much you value that over atmosphere and characterization, I think that a lot of readers can enjoy this simple, but fairly amusing novel.