Leo Bruce is one of the many brilliant writers I have come across since starting my blog and reading everyone else’s (much better) blogs on classic crime, so it’s always great to return to his work. Case for Sergeant Beef (1951), is another of Beef’s cases, which he receives as a private investigator rather than from being in the police.
Bruce opens his novel wonderfully with Townsend griping about Beef’s lack of interest in his chronicling of Beef’s cases, to the extent that Townsend is thinking of going in for selling marine insurance instead. I love how Townsend is probably fiction’s most grumpy Boswell, as there can’t be many other narrator/Watson characters who take such a dim view of their subject matter, believing that Beef ‘was not a man to appeal to the great public as an inspired investigator.’ Of course when Townsend goes to tell Beef about his career change, Beef is quite nonplussed, even going as far as saying that he hopes he will get a better writer to take over the job of writing up his cases. However, before Townsend’s blood boils over, a client arrives for Beef: a grieving sister, named Edith Shoulter, who is convinced that her brother’s death in a wood near her home is not a case of suicide, but of murder. Once more Townsend is reeled back in and he and Beef set off for Kent.
It is at this point that the narrative takes an unusual twist, with the next series of chapters all coming from a diary written by a character named Wellington Chickle, a retired watchmaker, who plans on making a name for himself, with the perfect murder… Murder does eventually strike, with Edith’s brother as the victim, but as Beef and his readers’ soon realise, not everything is quite what it should be…
As with my previous Bruce reads, this story has a wonderfully entertaining style and the diary entries in particular echo the earlier style of Francis Iles and irony certainly abounds in this work. In particular I found it quite ironic that it is the narrator/Watson figure who is the more objectionable character, rather than the “great” sleuth figure. Further comparisons could be made to the work of Berkeley but they would probably wander into spoiler territory, but I do think Berkeley was a significant influence on Bruce’s work.
Once more in this story we also have fun metafictional humour and it was amusing to see Beef commenting on Townsend’s author approach to the case, criticising his desire to go to the inquest:
‘What you mean is you hope to fill a chapter with it. […] I’ve noticed that when you fellows want to make your story go further you always put in the inquest. What for? Nothing ever comes out that you don’t know already.’
Whilst this last statement is not entirely true of all mystery novels, it does help the reader to feel like Beef is on their side. Given the nature of the plot it won’t surprise you to hear that Bruce also plays around with the concept of the inverted mystery.
So on the whole this was mostly a positive read. However, there was one key issue I had with the tale. Due to the simplicity of the plot (however clever it might be), the solution wasn’t that unexpected, as there was little room for Bruce to do anything else but that. Don’t get me wrong the solution worked great, but it just lacked a surprise factor for me. I think a slightly more complex plot would have created a bit more obfuscation, which in turn might have given Bruce more opportunity for creating a more surprising and elaborate solution. Good read, but not Bruce’s best.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Tree
Case for Three Detectives (1936)
Cold Blood (1952)