I’ve been slowly but steadily making my way through the Sergeant Beef titles by Bruce and I’ve never read a poor one so far. I was hoping a spot of Beef might restore my reading mojo which has been a bit shaky this month. Yet I still went into this novel with a little trepidation. After all have you seen the title? No conclusion? A mystery with no conclusion? Could it be possible?
In this story, Lionel Townsend, once more at the wheel for narrating the tale, Sergeant Beef has just retired from the police force and set up as a private investigator. Townsend is dubious of this new venture to say the least but still tags along on Beef’s first case. Peter Ferrars wants Beef to prove his older brother innocent of the murder of his neighbour, Doctor Bensen, who was found murdered in his brother’s library, the morning after he had been there for a dinner party. Unsurprisingly the high amount of circumstantial evidence poses a significant challenge to Beef. But will Beef rise to it? Or will the case end in well… no conclusion?
A crucial part of the success of the Sergeant Beef stories, for me at any rate, is the choice of narrator. Townsend is a wonderful variant on the Watson narrator, spending a lot of his time being disgusted by the uncouthness of the sleuth he chronicles for:
‘Whatever clichés could be used for Beef, no one could say that he “toyed with his food”. If he could have dissected motives and situations as thoroughly as he did those smoked fish, he would have been a great detective.’
His feelings of embarrassment over Beef’s career change are highly entertaining and I loved the part where Townsend sums up Beef’s career to date:
‘That he should have kept his job at Braxham had surprised me, for his fondness for local pubs was a byword. That he should have been the means of tracing two murderers was a miracle. That he should be able to earn a living as a private investigator was beyond all human credulity.’
Yet before you feel too sorry for Beef, you’ll find the sergeant is more than capable of standing up for himself. He frequently blames Townsend’s writing skills as the reason for why he is less well-known, complaining that his cases did not receive as much as attention as those written up by Christie and Crofts. Beef equally muses over the cases he wished he could have had to solve. It’s a no brainer why he would want to solve the case in Blake’s There’s Trouble Brewing, yet it seems he also had his eye on the cases in Macdonald’s Warrant for X, Allingham’s Fashion in the Shrouds (seriously?) and John Dickson Carr’s To Wake the Dead. Half of the fun of these sections of the story is trying to identify the works being alluded to, as the titles are not always given. Bruce certainly knew a lot about what his contemporaries were writing and reviewing.
Townsend of course rebuts all of the criticisms levelled at him, blaming in return the material he has to work with and I hugely enjoyed the moments in this story where he laments the poor, clichéd and hackneyed material he has to use. One of my favourite passages is when Townsend complains about the fact that the brother under arrested quarrelled with the victim: ‘There is always a violent quarrel […] how can I expect to make a good story of Beef’s cases, when they conform so closely to type?’ Peter’s response is of course priceless: ‘I’m bound to admit […] that I’m less concerned with your efforts at fiction than I am with the clearing of my brother’s name.’ You could say Bruce goes out of his way to make this case typical, run of the mill, trope-ish and Townsend frequently suggests a character is of a ‘type’ or ‘category’. Ordinarily this can make the plot somewhat flat and appealing. Yet this never happens as Bruce achieves a lot with familiar patterns, characters and plot devices, adding an interesting flourish here and then. Importantly for me Bruce is able to make even the most bog standard interviewing of the suspect concise, clear and engaging. Beef’s questioning often seems quite simple, but it usually builds up important points for the reader.
I am not sure the reader will figure out all of the solution, but the more astute reader (i.e. not me), will probably fathom out the general outline of it. Inferences about the arrested man do interestingly become nearly as important as those made about the personality of the victim. As to the ending? I don’t think it is 100% satisfying, but given the nature of the task he gives himself, Bruce produces a neat concept, with a delightful passage of glorious metafictional comedy.
Not always the cheapest or easiest book to get a hold but more reasonably priced copies do pop up every now and then, so I’d recommend keeping your eyes peeled for them. It wasn’t a 5/5 but my reader equanimity has been res-established. Let’s hope this continues with my next read…