Case with Four Clowns (1939) by Leo Bruce

Bruce’s Sergeant Beef series is one I have relied upon for its relatively consistent quality and I definitely approach these titles eager to find out what experiments Bruce will be making with the genre this time. Yet alas I think I have come across the “dud” book in the series, a discovery which several bloggers have made before me. But I think JJ sums it up well when he wrote that this book ‘is a short story at the end of 280 pages of circus travelogue.’ However I am getting ahead of myself and instead need to begin with a very different kind of warning…

For the unwary reader picking this book up you should beware that the first page of this story mentions quite big spoilers about the solution of the previous book in the series, Case with No Conclusion (1939). Unfortunately Bruce provides no warning of his own, so all I will say at the start of my own synopsis is that Lionel Townsend, narrator and Beef’s biographer, is surprised the Sergeant is on another case. A case which sees the pair of them going to a travelling circus in Yorkshire, based on a letter from Beef’s wife’s nephew, who has been warned by the resident gypsy that a murder will happen at the circus. Bruce’s experiment is therefore this one: to write a mystery novel in which the murder being investigated has not happened yet, nor the potential victim immediately apparent. So not only do Beef and the reader have to unearth the would be murderer, but they need to figure out who is to be bumped off.

Overall Thoughts

After my brief outline of the plot I imagine JJ’s summation of the novel provides some idea of how Bruce’s experiment pans out. The mystery element of the case really doesn’t crystallise until the final 30 odd pages, meaning the remaining 280 lack any real sense of definition or direction. The range of motives, potential victims and even near deaths which occur, leave too many red herrings for the reader to discard and narrow down. I’d be surprised if any armchair detective finishes this book triumphant. It is therefore quite ironic when Lionel writes that, ‘quite beyond my own wishes I was being drawn into a case in which there was scarcely a clue. It would hardly make, I thought, a detective story at all.’ And I feel a lot of readers would probably agree with the latter half of this sentiment quite strongly. Consequently I think Bruce’s experiment falls down in two main ways: A) Given the nature of the plot the narrative is far too long to maintain reader interest with the mystery element so long withheld and B) Too much key information is only heard for the first time in the solution.

SPOILER

I did also want to air my grievance that the death that is finally investigated at the end of book didn’t actually have to happen. It was entirely preventable, as death only occurs because Beef never tells Lionel the key point that the victim should not be allowed to do a certain thing. Though on reflection I have wondered whether the book would have completely disintegrated without an actual corpse.

SPOILER OVER

Nevertheless there are actually a number of things I really enjoyed about this book, much may that surprise you.

Bruce does have a way with words and every book of his always leaves the reader with a large handful or two of nuggets from setting descriptions: ‘Beef’s house lay on the right, in the centre of a row of small unobtrusive houses which huddled together rather like a dozen monkeys sheltering from the wind on a rocky ledge,’ to dialogue which reels you in with what it doesn’t say, such as when the circus owner mentions two of their troupe leaving:

Sergeant Beef: Why did they split up?

Jackson: He wasn’t a very good knife-thrower.

In terms of character psychology Bruce provides us with a complex array of characters, (perhaps too many of them though), but in particular I enjoyed his depiction of two twins and the psychological stresses and tensions such a way of life can have on them. Of course Bruce equally uses his circus setting to good effect and I think Townsend puts it well when he talks of it as ‘a strange country, though not strange enough to make one feel uncomfortable.’ It also goes without saying that what makes this book do as well as it does, is the jostling relationship between Townsend and Beef. It was hard to not chuckle when Lionel gets accused by Beef of lacking subtly, an accusation which is steeped in irony, given how many times Lionel has thrown the same criticism at Beef. Though Lionel gets to even the score a little when he compares Beef’s approach to detection with other fictional sleuths:

‘You know, the trouble with you, Beef, is that you’re too lazy. If you’d been almost any other detective you’d have been clubbed, a shot, kidnaped, run over, caught in a burning building, blown up by a bomb, and a hundred other unpleasant but exciting things. If you had a little more respect for tradition you’d see what I mean. Every other detective of any standing at all is threatened half a dozen times a day. Have you ever been threatened?’

It is quite sweet when Beef can only reply that he has had one anonymous letter and even that is revealed to be a mere nothing. In some ways I think the exaggeration present here can also be read as a send up of the sleuths in the mould of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion.

The Sergeant Beef series is not only noted for its’ use of protagonist banter, but also for its use of metafiction humour. Whilst this tale does not reach the metafictional heights of Case for Three Detectives (1936), Lionel does spend some time in this book reflecting on his own role as a Watson narrator and what is required of him when in it:

‘The investigator’s biographer, I had learned, had no active function other than lending his car, time, and his pen. His advice was supposed in advance to be both misleading and useless, so that when I said to Beef, “I think the whole idea is crazy,” I was only doing what was expected of me, and that the case should, by all the rules, proceed to a successful conclusion in spite of me. My last remark then had been quite in keeping with my role, and I led the way out of the public house with something of a feeling of satisfaction.’

Having now got to the end of the book I feel there is definitely a retrospective irony to the idea of Beef solving the case ‘in spite’ of Lionel. Another passage also grabbed my attention which is when Townsend thinks it would be a good idea for the ‘chronicler’ to not only have a theory about the case but for ‘the chronicler’s theory be correct.’ The reason this struck me was because I had recently come across a similar notion in Anthony Horowitz’s latest book, The Sentence is Death (2018), where his own Watson narrator questions, assesses and considers the role he is in, equally desiring to be the one to figure it all out and show the actual sleuth up.

So whilst this book is the weakest Beef mystery I have read to date, there was much I liked about it, not least the meaning of the title, which is revealed on the final page. Very entertaining and very in keeping with Bruce’s approach to writing mystery fiction.

Rating: 3.25/5

See also:

JJ, Martin and George Simmers have also written about this title.

One more thing…

I noticed whilst reading this book the phrase ‘love me, love my dog.’ I was quite surprised to see it as I had only ever really thought of it as being coined in more modern times. But it does leave me wondering when it first came into existence. Any one know?

13 comments

  1. SPOILERS

    While I was reading this one a couple of years ago, I posted the cover image on Facebook with the caption, “Clown-counting fail.” As you say, the ending of the book explains the title; but in the meantime we had a lively discussion featuring our various silly theories as to what happened to the fourth clown. “Some settling of contents may have occurred,” I quipped. One friend suggested that the big skull hovering in the background (which I hadn’t previously noticed!) was a clown skull. But how would we know if a skull was that of a clown? I asked. “Do we call in an anthropologist, a forensic osteopath, or a comedy phrenologist?” Anyway, I don’t know if you had this particular edition in your hands, but eventually I located a fourth clown—on the spine!

    I think my favorite part of this book was the meta business about the love interest.

    As for “love me, love my dog,” I see that it’s included in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (with no attribution to an author), which I think implies that it’s a venerable old saying, not anything of recent coinage. I wouldn’t be surprised if it went back at least to Roman times (but that’s just a guess).

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  2. Never finished this one. It was a long time ago that I attempted to read this very dull mystery novel and it’s now reminding me that any time I have picked up a mystery novel from the GAD era about a circus written by someone who hasn’t a clue about that world I have been completely disappointed. Those books are THE LADDER OF DEATH, by Brian Flynn (never finished), THE AFFAIR OF THE CIRCUS QUEEN by Clifford Knight (deadly dull!) and ABOUT THE MURDER OF A CIRCUS QUEEN by Anthony Abbot. The last one comes closest to understanding circus people without resorting to movie cliches. Ironically, it was turned into a movie and it become utterly cliche ridden. For anyone interested in the best mystery novel about carnivals and circus people I highly recommend THE OUTSIDERS by A. E. Martin. And if you want to know why I’m so critical it’s because I happen to know a helluva lot about that world. My brother worked for Cirque du Soleil for close to 15 years. I’ve listened to many an anecdote, visited him many times at work, and met many of the performers. It’s a fascinating world, they all think so differently than the types of theater people I grew up around. A book about genuine circus people would be a wonderful way to explore a detective novel, but so often mystery writers just use it as an exotic backdrop without ever contemplating (or bothering to imagine) the way circus people think and behave.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, that is a very good one. Ken. But that’s a carnival, not a circus. Darkest noir, the worst side of carnival people in that one. In fact, there’s a whole subgenre of “carny noir: Death on the Ferris Wheel by Aylwin Lee Martin, Carny Kill by Robert Alter , Fatal Step by Wade Miller, Night’s Evil by Mark McShane, nearly all the books about Ed & Am Hunter by Fredric Brown, etc. I could build on that list for a long time. Nightmare Alley has some great scenes at the carnival, but the book ends up being about con artists who exploit the grief stricken people who seek out spiritualists and mediums. But circuses are so very different from carnivals. The element of surreal-ness that sometimes you get in theater mysteries (insularity, nomadic nature of the life, inability to function in real world, etc.) should be quadrupled when writing about circus people.

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  3. For a long time, Case with Four Clowns was a sought-after collector’s item in North America, as it had only been published once in the U.S., in 1939, until 2010. Now that I’ve read it, I can imagine why it stayed out of print for so long; it’s just not as good as the other Beefs. It seems to go on forever, and when you get to the solution it’s a real disappointment – I felt that Beef was just taking something from page 73, something from page 164, and something from page 201 (not the actual page numbers), and saying “there’s your solution,” without explaining why it was the correct one. If I’m remembering the later Beef novels (and then the Carolus Deene ones), Bruce never wrote a mystery this long again – maybe he’d learned a lesson from this one?

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  4. Thanks for the review – looks like I can give this one a miss. 😅 The last Bruce I read was “Ropes and Rings”, which was good rather than great; hoping “No Conclusion”, which will probably be my next Bruce, will fare better. Still debating whether or not to purchase “Neck and Neck”. 🧐

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