In today’s read, the narrator, Lionel Townsend, who chronicles the cases Sergeant Beef solves, is in for a more personal case, as his brother Vincent rings to tell him of their Aunt Aurora’s sudden death. It soon transpires that she was killed with poison and it is not long before the police begin to look suspiciously at those who stood to gain the most by Aurora’s will; namely Lionel and his brother – though a more distant cousin had expected to inherit as well, but had been recently cut out. Of course Lionel wonders how much he can trust his brother and Aurora’s companion, Edith Payne, though it is actually Lionel who struggles to have the most verifiable alibi. It is in this vulnerable position that Lionel decides he needs the help of his friend Sergeant Beef, now an ex-police officer, who has set up as a private detective. Beef promises to help, though also wishes to continue investigating another case in the Cotswolds, of the death an unpleasant publisher which is initially assumed to be suicide but is soon shown to be otherwise.
This is the penultimate Beef mystery, yet it is interesting to see that Bruce is still able to include elements of the unexpected. Firstly Townsend, the narrator, deviates from his derogatory attitude towards Beef and for once is actually nice about him:
‘I could no longer blind myself to the fact that Beef was a genius. I had known him first as a heavy-footed country policeman whose ginger moustache seemed nourished by the beer into which it was all too frequently dipped. Like others I had refused to take him seriously as a detective, his methods seemed outwardly slap-dash […] But his hardy common sense, so blunt and English, so boorish as I sometimes thought, had prevailed too often to leave any doubt about his really profound cleverness.’
Then again his vulnerable position of the police may well have something to do with all of this. Though the reader wonders how much they can trust Townsend, not necessarily because of his being nice, but because he admits to the reader, that like all the other suspects, he had a ‘little secret.’
It was also a first for Beef to have two cases to solve in one story, which overall worked very well. The humour is a little more low key in this book, but I wouldn’t say that is detrimental to the reader enjoyment.
The solution will more than likely hit you about 40 pages from the end, as it did me. It is a perfectly good solution and it fits well with the storyline, but I think seasoned mystery readers will feel a little disappointed. It’s the sort of solution which only fully appeals on the reader’s first experience of it. However, to Bruce’s credit he does present the reader with an additional surprise, playing on reader expectations.
I realise I have sounded a bit lukewarm on this book. It won’t knock your socks off, but the writing style, the characterisation and the pacing are all enjoyable and allow this to remain an entertaining tale nevertheless. Looking at my ratings for the other Beef mysteries I have read (see below), this is my third favourite, which considering that my fourth favourite has a rating of 4 out of 5, is not all that bad.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): At least two deaths with different means
Case for Sergeant Beef (1947)
Cold Blood (1952)