I’ve not read a novel by Bruce for nearly a year, though in fairness I only had two Sergeant Beef titles left to read. This is one of them. Bruce is the sort of writer, who is mainly well-known, in vintage crime circles at any rate, for one specific title, in this case, the Case for Three Detectives (1936). Yet I think this is a shame, as the remaining novels in this series can become a little overlooked as a consequence, with many writing them off as inferior to Bruce’s debut. This seems unfair to me, as I think the later books have much to recommend them, as my various reviews of them testify. Bruce, in my mind, is a concept writer, as often the plotting of the Beef stories, hinge upon a specific trope which is turned upside down or pushed to the maximum. Titles such as the Case with No Conclusion (1939) and the Case without a Corpse (1937), spring to mind. This tendency to push the boundaries of mystery writing conventions has its ups and downs in terms of quality, but the Beef series is definitely worth exploring beyond Bruce’s debut.
The plot for today’s review centres on Lord Alan Foulkes, a schoolboy who is found hanging in the gymnasium at Penshurst School. Since the gymnasium was locked on the inside and there were no signs of forced entry, it is assumed to be a suicide by all, except Sergeant Beef, who is working still as a private investigator. Beef’s hunch that this case has potential is backed up by the fact that the boy had just won a boxing championship. Surely he had no reason for ending his life? Though it quickly transpires that there are several who might have wanted him dead. This may seem like your typical school-based mystery, but by the half way mark, Bruce soon begins to suggest otherwise…
I was in need of a comfort read and the opening of this novel reminded me why I love the Sergeant Beef cases so much. Bruce’s prose style and comedic touch is always a delight; both of which immediately pull you into the fictional world he creates. His take on the Watson/Holmes sleuth relationship is brilliant. As usual we have the fractious dynamic between Sergeant Beef and his Watson, Lionel Townsend. Lionel as always is less than impressed with his uncouth sleuth. Nevertheless the need for some cash necessitates Lionel trying to find a new case for Beef to take on, so he can write a book about it. Lionel’s attempts as you can see are not successful…
‘I had made several attempts to get him a job, but these had been frustrated by a number of circumstances. In the first, a nice little murder up in Shropshire, the wife of the murdered man had explained tartly that even if she did employ an investigator, she would not have the killing of her husband with a meat-chopper made the subject of a novel. Another, a parson in Norfolk, who was having all sorts of trouble in his parish on account of a deluge of anonymous letters, had shaken his head sadly. ‘The publicity, my dear Sir, the publicity!’
Lionel is far from happy about Beef taking on the Foulkes case, thinking it a dead end. The fact that it took place at the school where Lionel’s brother works, may also have something to do with Lionel’s negative attitude, as unsurprisingly he does not get on well with his sibling.
Lionel is one of Bruce’s many achievements in the Beef series. He is the lens through which we see events, yet the reader is never pulled into seeing things the way Lionel does. I find it very interesting that Bruce makes such an unsympathetic Watson narrator, so enjoyable to encounter. Though Bruce’s lampooning of snobbery and social pretensions may well have something to do with it, as the reader tends to enjoy Lionel’s many moments of discomfiture. Despite the posh school surroundings Beef makes himself at home very easily and is by far the more popular of the two, with Lionel having to suffer many a dousing of cold water on his literary efforts. Sergeant Beef getting a job as a porter at the school is a stroke of comedy genius, and it is entertaining to see the way he influences school life, including starting a craze for darts.
Consonant with other titles in the series, Bruce indulges in a number of moments of meta-fiction, ranging from a nod to Ronald Knox in the characterisation of the headmaster, to Lionel bemoaning the number of interviews Beef does:
‘Yes, but all these interviews,’ I protested. ‘They’re awfully bad for the book. People get sick of reading how you cross-examine this or that person. They want some action.’
In some ways the second half does deliver on the need for action, yet in other ways you can see Beef still not pandering to Lionel’s aesthetic requests, as Lionel frequently assesses and valuates the case in terms of how it will affect his story and therefore his sales. The school-based mystery the book begins with does begin to lose a bit of steam by the half-way point, which is perhaps why Bruce branches out at this juncture. Some readers may not enjoy this altered course, though the finale which weaves both halves of the plot together does provide some justification for it. Bruce’s love of frustrating mystery story conventions and their resultant expectations is well-used in the second half when it comes to the matter of the love interest.
However, Bruce may frustrate other reader expectations which may dismay more than Lionel. The ‘how’ of the initial crime is not really focused on and although it makes its way into the solution the reader doesn’t really get a fair go at grappling with it. But if the how element is not a primary focus for you then this will be less of a problematic issue. Equally on the upside there is some clever evidence in the dialogue which the reader should of course pick up on, but inevitably ends up missing. The solution, which I will comment on in a spoiler-like way at the end of this post, is good and even innovative in many ways, but a fairly crucial bit of evidence is withheld, which may mar the solution for the puzzle purist.
I definitely enjoyed my outing with Beef as usual, though I am sold on the narrative style and protagonists. Plotting imperfections therefore tend to bug me less on the whole. Though I think it is hard to not have a lot of fun reading a Beef mystery and this latest read has reminded me that this series is definitely one which needs adapting for TV.
See also: Curtis at The Passing Tramp has also reviewed this title here.
This novel was written a decade before Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, yet I think it pre-empts or at least anticipates the hook of the later novel. In Bruce’s story the obvious suspect for each murder ends up having done the opposite killing, i.e. the one they seemingly have no link to. The key difference is that the killers are working independently of each other. It intrigues me as to whether Highsmith ever read Bruce’s book. I also think it a shame that Bruce is not as well-known as Highsmith, despite being incredibly innovative, though I suppose Highsmith’s use of the plot device may have greater psychological impact, due to the differing style of her book.