Cold Blood (1952) by Leo Bruce

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Blunt Instrument


This is the last novel Bruce wrote featuring his serial characters Sergeant Beef and journalist and writer Townsend, who narrates Beef’s case. One significant change though is that unlike in the other Bruce novel I read, Case for Three Detectives (1936), Beef is no longer a member of the police force and instead works as a private investigator. The humour is also far less dominant and metafictional and from the opening page we are told that the case Townsend is about to recount had a lasting impact on Beef: ‘It was as though for the first time in his life he was in what is rightly called “deadly” earnest. For the first time in his life he was a little bit afraid.’

The case in question involves the murder of Cosmos Ducrow, at his country home in Kent. Cosmos is rather hermit-like, struggling with anxiety around unknown people. At his residence, servants aside, lives his wife Freda, who used to be his nurse, his old school friend Theo Gray and Major Gulley, Cosmos’ secretary. At one of the lodge gate houses lives also Cosmos’ nephew, Rudolf and his wife Zena. The murder is believed to have occurred during the night, a night of disturbances and as the investigation gets underway it soon seems an awful lot of activity was going during that time. However, before all of that Cosmos is found in the morning outside, his head crushed with a croquet mallet. The initial evidence seems to make a very black case against Rudolf. His fingerprints are on the murder weapon, he was seen outside during the night and like the others benefits a lot from Cosmos’ will. With arrest imminent Beef is called in to prove his innocence.

This is no simple case, with motives abounding among the residences for bumping off Cosmos and Beef is subjected to a lack of confidence from pretty much everyone, including Townsend himself! It takes further death and odd events plus a puzzling final showdown before the case is finally put to bed.

Overall Thoughts

In the Case for Three Detectives, Townsend and Beef meet for the first time and are not working together but of course this changed over the series. Yet what struck me the most was how much Townsend, the sidekick character, is embarrassed by Beef – a trait which doesn’t feel atypical in such a fictional relationship. Their relationship at times becomes far from amicable. Although in fairness I think this is mostly due to Townsend, a character whose negatives qualities are much more apparent in this story. He is a big social snob, which means in his mind he is forever having to apologise to others for Beef and his less than perfect manners. Townsend contrasts himself and Beef with Watson and Holmes, such as when he says:

‘How different, I could not help reflecting, was the conversation of Holmes and Watson while they sat waiting for their clients not half a mile away. If Watson had to make any apology it was for himself, not for the man whose achievements he proudly chronicled, whereas when I looked across the sitting room at Beef I know how much I had to explain.’

Consequently I invariably found myself feeling sorry for Beef and also wondering why he puts up with Townsend; though this is partially answered in the denouement of the book where Beef is finally able to redeem himself and put Townsend in his place.

Image result for cold blood leo bruce

As I mentioned earlier there is much less metafiction in this work than in Case for Three Detectives. However the bits there are, are interesting and enjoyable. For example when Townsend suggests how he has been far more crucial for Beef’s fame than Beef’s own detecting abilities, he says that:

‘Which investigator doesn’t find the solution? You need a great deal more than successful detection to make you famous as a detective. You need a peculiar appearance, for one thing. Either enormously tall or minutely small. Very fat or wasting away. Beard, eye glass or some such identification mark. You must resemble an alligator every few pages, like Mrs Bradley, or talk like a peer in an Edwardian farce, like Lord Peter Wimsey. Or use bits of exclamatory French, like Poirot. You must be different, in other words.’

Beef asks whether he is different, to which Townsend replies, ‘You are when I’ve done with you.’ But aside from the humour and the nice mention of famous sleuths, the thing that stood out the most for me was how much this story, although published in 1950s, felt very much like a 1930s mystery. Not only is this reinforced by the setting, but it also comes through in a later metafictional comment, when Gray mentions to Beef that he was not his first choice in private investigators: Poirot was engaged on another case, whilst Campion was uninterested, (which seems a shame given the ending of the book) and if Beef did not take on the case, Gray’s next choice would be Inspector French. Thankfully for me Beef said yes.

Image result for cold blood leo bruce

Although I have mostly talked about Beef and Townsend, a shout out should be given to the other characters in the book, as characterisation is definitely a strong point of Bruce’s story. In particular it intrigued me that our wealthy victim was not an unpleasant man and in fact it seemed he was much more under the thumb of others. If this had been a true novel of the 1950s or a mystery with a greater psychology focus this area might have been explored further. However the fact it wasn’t didn’t hugely decrease my enjoyment of the book and for all puzzle fans there is certainly a hefty puzzle for you to get your teeth into. In the 20th chapter the issue of fair play comes up as Townsend tells us that we have all the information Beef has and therefore should be able to arrive at the correct solution. There is even a table with questions included. Personally I didn’t really cotton on to what was happening until right at the end but on balance I felt Bruce gave us a very satisfying solution and there were sneaky but good clues in the book. So once again Bruce has delivered another excellent read.

Rating: 4.5/5


  1. Sounds like this would be a very nice title to add to my TBR pile – if only my local Kindle store stocks it! It has many Bruce titles, but not all of them. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have just, in the last week or so, acquired a copy of this after a fair amount of hunting, so I’m pleased to hear it has a hefty puzzle. The Beef books go up an down in quality of scheme like nobody’s business, with Three Detectives and Case for Sergeant Beef among the best, and Case with Four Clowns being 250 pages of circus travelogue before he remembers that he’s writing a novel about a murder and hastily throws one in as things look to be stagnating beyond redemption.

    And, you’re not wrong in feeling sorry for Beef — Lionel Townsend is something of a pillock at times; you wonder how many cases Beff has to miraculously solve before Townsend will accept that he’s a smart and perceptive cookie… I appreciate it’s all part of the convention-baiting, but it gets a little wearisome at times when he’s <i<yet again rolling his eyes and going on about how old and rubbish and out-of-it Beef seems. Maybe that’s why Bruce stopped writing these, because he got tired of having to overhaiul everything every time. I hear the Carolus Deene books are rather more conventional…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did. Definitely a good find as I can imagine that it is hard to find Bruce novels without using the internet. Not read any of the Deene books yet. May give one a go at some point.


  3. My package containing ‘Cold Blood’ and another novel by John Dickson Carr finally made it to my pigeonhole…! I was first introduced to ‘Cold Blood’ by TomCat, but it was your review that reminded me to search for a copy and click ‘purchase’. I trust that there aren’t any spoilers for the previous Sergeant Beef cases? Looking forward to starting it this evening! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

      • I liked the references to Poirot, Campion, Wimsey, Mrs Bradley and French. I don’t think I’ve read enough Allingham to be tickled by the prospect of Campion being uninterested. When I finish the novel I need to go back and think whether or not Poirot would have kicked himself for missing out on this one. Then again, Townsend rolls his eyes alot more than Hastings would as a narrator – I enjoyed his reaction to Beef eating a plate of shrimps. 😀

        Will say more when I finish the novel and re-read your review…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Manage to stay up and finish ‘Cold Blood’ last night. I liked it, and I agree that it was a fairly convoluted mystery – so thanks for the recommendation. 🙂 I guess the only thing holding it back from the very top rank, despite the many clues, would be that there wasn’t a single clue that made me hit my hand against my head and feel that I had been duped.

        On the issue of psychology, I guess the mild-mannered nature of the victim was crucial to the psychology of the culprit – in the light of the frequent references to the menacing evil and villainy that pervaded the household? And possibly the title as well?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Glad you enjoyed it and I like your ideas on the mild-mannered nature of the victim. I guess for me it just made a change to have a country house murder victim who wasn’t some sort of out and out tyrannical figure.


  4. Thank you for a very insightful review of Leo Bruce’s novel ‘Cold Blood. This is the only Sergeant Beef novel I am yet to read and your review motivates me to aquire it and add it to my collection which includes all the Sgt. Beef novels and several of the Carolus Deene series as well. Unfortunately a number of the Deene novels are just not available. It is rather sad that Leo Bruce is not so well known today. He definitely deserves a honoured place in the legion of notable detective fiction writers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I definitely agree with your lament over Bruce’s lack of recognition, though in the GAD community I think he is pretty well known. I’ve read a couple of the Deene novels but they don’t have the same magic as his Beef ones, which I am still working my way through. Which is your favourite Beef novel?


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