Death of a Commuter (1967) by Leo Bruce

I have read a few books by Leo Bruce, (Case for Three Detectives (1936), Case for Sergeant Beef (1951) and Cold Blood (1952)), but this is the first book I have read in his Carolus Deene series, this being the 16th.

It begins with 5 regular commuters wondering why the 6th person, Felix Parador, who normally joins them in first class, has not arrived. Nerves are further set on edge when an outsider to the group takes his seat, saying he won’t be coming. We soon realise there is good reason for Parador’s absence, when the police find him dead in his car at an isolated car park near Downaway Hill. It is presumed that he has committed suicide, via a drug overdose, yet those closest to him remain unconvinced. An ex-employee who just so happens to be married to Carolus Deene’s housekeeper, gives Deene an opening into the case. Deene is a school teacher who has just gone on holiday and who is itching to get involved in another criminal investigation, so this case seems right up this street. The only downside is that he has to take along a less than angelic teenage pupil with him, whose parents are unable, (read: do not want to), to take care of him over the holidays. Of course once Deene gets involved in examining Parador’s death more and more suspicious circumstances are revealed, such as how some of the commuters benefit from his death, the fact Parador recently changed his will, but this new will has gone missing and that there are some less than savoury rumours about his wife’s reputation.

Overall Thoughts

I really enjoyed the start of the novel, as I think Bruce gets the group dynamic on the train just right, incorporating the social etiquette which has built up within the group, but which also ironically limits how much interaction they have with each other:

‘Perhaps if two of them met in Brenstead or in the presence of their wives there might be some chit-chat exchanged, or something as closely personal as an enquiry after health. But not in the morning. Not in that compartment. The nearest they had ever gone towards intimacy was an exchange of comments on last night’s television.’

Bruce goes on to say that Parador ‘made history’ when he asked to borrow a pencil to fill in the Times crossword. Looking from the outside in, it’s hard to not find such a social group entertaining. This brand of humour is characteristic of the novel as a whole, by and large, as like Delano Amees’ later work, Bruce’s later work moves from overt zany metafictional humour to more understated character based social/cultural comedy, though I think Bruce could have pushed the humour in these areas a little further. Perhaps the former type of humour is too hard to maintain over that many years.

Although this story was written in the 1960s and has various cultural indicators of being of those times, especially in its references to fashion, its sexism and young people, the mystery itself mostly harks back to earlier mystery fiction. Moreover, I would say that Deene himself, feels like he belongs to an earlier era, (though not in a bad way), dampening down his young charge’s amorous remarks and telling him off for using the Americanism ‘OK’.

As I say I enjoyed the opening of the story and the plot moves along nicely in an entertaining fashion, however things begin to get disappointing 70 pages from the end (which is fairly significant considering that the book is only 192 pages long). In order to get some movement on the case, thriller components emerge, in terms of violent action and criminal psychology and unfortunately these aspects fell flat for me, as they just seemed too ridiculous and juxtaposed to the story that preceded them. The solution tries to return back to the atmosphere set earlier in the story but again it felt disappointing, especially considering it is largely theoretical and not based on much hard evidence. This was a big shame for me as I loved the central characters and if they were placed in a stronger mystery I would love to encounter them again. So if you’ve read any good Deene mysteries do let me know.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): (Train) Carriage

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19 comments

  1. Best to stick to roast Beef! The Carolus Deene books are generally quite poor. They’re lightweight, formulaic – lots of rote interviewing of “eccentrics” – and the solutions are borrowed from other writers, including Carr and Christie. DEATH OF COLD isn’t bad, although you’ll guess whodunit quite easily.

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      • I have to agree with Nick. There’s a world of difference, quality-wise, between the Sgt. Beef and Carolus Deene series.

        Granted, I’ve only read three Deenes, but the recycling in two of them was very obvious. Death in Albert Park lifted its solution from one of Agatha Christie’s famous Hercule Poirot novels and Death at St. Asprey’s School reworked one of his own short stories. Nothing Like Blood was the most original one of the three, but still a pretty mediocre mystery novel. So, like Nick said, stick to Beef.

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      • A dozen or so, including better-regarded titles like FURIOUS OLD WOMEN. I can’t really recommend any – drab, dreary, and lacking originality. That’s my beef with the Deenes!

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    • Sorry about that! If it is any consolation in the FB GAD group there are a few who enjoy the series, including Curtis Evans. He recommends the earlier ones and remember enjoying those published between 1960 and 1965. Hopefully some of yours are from that period.

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  2. I’ve heard that ‘Furious Old Women’ is meant to be the best of the Deene novels? But I haven’t got round to reading it… I’m waiting for my copy of ‘Case of Ropes and Rings’ to arrive, which should be my next foray into Leo Bruce. 🙂

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  3. Wasn’t that impressed with my encounter with Deena either – Our Jubilee Is Death. There are a couple of interesting sections where Bruce is having a moan about the detective genre, which is odd, given the book he wrote, but otherwise, no rush to read more.

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      • The thing that bugs me with Bruce is that in both novels that I’ve read (Our Jubilee Is Death and Three Detectives) he seems determined to bite the hand that feeds him. The faux-Father Brown in particular came across as particularly mean to my eyes. Maybe it’s just bad luck on my part – despite this, I did enjoy the Beef tale – but it could get tiresome if it’s in every book…

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      • Yeah out of the three parodied detectives, the Brown parody was the weakest. Didn’t quite hit the mark. But the others were good and yes a series of parodied detectives might get tiring to read (and write probably). I’d recommend trying some of the other Beef novels, which don’t have parodied fictional sleuths. They might lack the stuff that bugs you.

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  4. Your point about a good start and a weak finish holds true in all of the Carolus Deenes I’ve read as far as I recall (three or four, including this one, the titles of which currently elude me). The formula is very similar each time, a little like Miss Silver, and it can get tiresome.

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  5. I read most of this series a year or two ago, and they definitely fell into my “like these just enough to bother with them, but they’re definitely not top-notch” category. The distinctive feature from across the series that I remember mostly strongly, which a previous commenter has alluded to as ‘rote interviewing of “eccentrics,”’ is that every book features a parade of minor characters who each have a different conversational tic–some heavily repeated turn of phrase or fixation (a pattern we also see in regular characters like Deene’s headmaster and housekeeper). It’s totally overdone, but I admit I have a soft spot for this kind of character comedy. And, to be fair, a lot of people one speaks to in real life really are sort of like that!

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