Wednesday, September 7, 2016

It Walks By Night

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. 

Having recently lost his wife, Gregory Cushing decides to visit his old uncle Jake in Steeple Thelming, who lives a simple life mostly consisting of his books, his faithful donkey Boomer and frequent (and somewhat excessive) visits to the local pub. One morning, after a snowfall, Greg and other locals discover a most curious set of footprints left in the snow: The prints of a bipedal being with hooves appear out of nowhere, goes up the gardens of several of the houses of the villagers, crosses fences and walls with ease, takes a walk on somebody's roof and ends at the foot of a dead tree. It is said that in a faraway past, a witch had been hanged from this very tree, but there's a very dead body hanging from the tree this time also. Who might have commited suicide, or have been hanged there by the mysterious walker. Imaginative minds quickly associate the seemingly supernatural being who made the hoof-marks with a certain ruler of Hell, and even Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith is not really sure what to think initially in Norman Berrow's The Footprints of Satan (1950).

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.


  1. You are right about the atmosphere. I enjoyed the book a lot.
    I own a lot of Ramble House books, they do us an immense service which is greatly appreciated, but their cover artwork tends to look like it was farmed out to the nearest kindergarten.

    1. let's see you draw a better cover then.

    2. When you are selling something, do the best you can. I am not selling anything.

    3. It's such a missed opportunity, because the whole idea of original artwork as cover art seems to be a lost art in (Western) publishing nowadays, and I do think the composition/idea behind this cover is great...but the actual technique is lacking...

    4. Cover art is not great, or even decent, but the classic, Dell-style, map back was a nice touch. Map backs are a genuine lost art in publishing today.

    5. Yeah, I still read plenty of novels with diagrams and maps, but you really don't see the illustrated map anymore.

  2. I've never read this book, but from your synopsis it sounds as if it was a based on a real incident--or set of incidents--in mid-19th century England, usually called "The Devil's Footprints" or something similar. See here:

    1. Indeed it was, and Berrow makes reference to that incident in this at various stages.

      I read this at the start of the year and absolutely loved it. I apprecite, retrospectively, that as a puzzle it may be a touch on the simple side, but at the time I was so caught up in it that I was as baffled and amazed as everyone I was reading about.

      I think what really got me was the brilliant 20-odd page section where the footprints are discovered and followed - it's just a wonderful piece of extended simple writing with a ton of atmosphere. Especially given that it follows an opening section that gives no hint of any such miraculous happening...they just wake up one morning and there the prints are...

    2. Ha, and I thought that the references to the incident in the book were just a made-up tale, like you see in so many mystery stories. Shows again that I really should learn to read up on these kinds of things. Thanks for the link!

      The first part, from everybody waking up to the discovery of the prints and ultimately the body is definitely the highlight of the book.

    3. Rupert Gould wrote an interesting account of the case, collected in Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts, which quotes extensively from newspapers at the time.

      At the time, the newspapers "opened it columns" to their readers and published a whole stack of suggestions that could explain the footprints. I was reminded of a modern internet messageboard.

      Trivia: one of Edward Hoch's first stories, "The Hoofs of Satan," also tried to explain them, but this story is not as good as Berrow's novel.

  3. excuse me Ho-Ling, could you tell me what this book series is about ?

    1. The series is called The Holmes of Kyoto, Teramachi-Sanjo and is about the son of a owner of a curio shop, who is considered quite brilliant, and a part timer who works in the shop.