This is the 2nd novel in the Sergeant Beef series, but through a timely Secret Santa gift, it is now my final read from the 8-book series. Following a promotion after solving the murder in Case for Three Detectives (1936), Sergeant Beef is working in the provincial town of Braxham. On a February evening, Lionel Townsend, (Beef’s chronicler), is catching up with Beef in a pub, (where else?)
But then their darts match is rudely interrupted by local bad hat Alan Rogers, who is back on leave from his ship stewarding job. He enters the pub, tells Beef that he has committed a murder and then swiftly downs a bottle of poison. There is blood on his sleeve and a bloodied knife inside his coat. But who has he killed? Where is the body? Of course, this is where the book’s title comes into play…
In keeping with the other books in the series Bruce has much fun with genre clichés, boldly using them in a self-conscious way, which makes them an entertaining read. Perhaps that is why his Beef novels often begin in a metafictional manner. This time around Bruce opens his book with a comment on atmosphere:
‘It was, I shall have to admit, a dark and stormy night. I have always thought it odd that so many crimes have taken place to the accompaniment of howling winds and nightmare tempests. It is odd, but not altogether unaccountable, for they are the supremely right accompaniment.’
Yet, unlike writers working in the HIBK vein, Bruce does not use such moments to elicit an emotional response, or at the very least to elicit nothing more than a quiet smile of acknowledgement. Confounding readers’ expectations is something of a hobby for Bruce. Metafictional humour in this series frequently gravitates towards Lionel and his role as a Watson narrator and this story is no different:
‘There was, of course, no reason why I should be admitted, but my reading of detective novels, which had been considerable, had taught me that an outsider, with no particular excuse, was often welcomed on these occasions, especially if he had the gift of native fatuity, and could ask ludicrous questions at the right moment, so I hoped for the best.’
Nevertheless, even at this early stage in the series, the reader can tell that Lionel is not entirely comfortable with the Watson role, clearly aware of the derogatory tags it often carries:
‘It is not often that the mere chronicler of crime gets a thrill. His work is usually to attend, as unintelligently as possible, the dreary post-mortems, and to listen, without too much acumen, to the elucidation offered by the masters. But during those minutes I knew all the excitements of the chase. I was about to do my own part – and an important part it would be.’
Consequently, there are times when he relishes the opportunity to break free of the Watson conventions, though unsurprisingly these moments conclude in bathos, with either nothing spectacular happening at all or with Lionel making a big mistake.
Having read this series out of order, I was quite struck by the fact that Lionel has a much more positive attitude towards Sergeant Beef here, than he does in later books. Whilst in these subsequent cases Lionel acts in a very snobbish fashion when describing Beef, in this second tale Lionel is far more of a champion. When he introduces Beef, he talks about how ‘everything else [was] against him,’ and places him in opposition to the public-school boy detectives in the Inspector Alleyn mould. Lionel goes onto say, ‘I, personally, was delighted. The Sergeant, for me, represented most that was worthwhile in the English character.’ All I can say is that Lionel certainly changes his tune in the later novels, where he is more embarrassed than delighted by Beef’s character.
However, Lionel’s kind remarks in Case Without a Corpse, do not prevent him from thinking that Beef is mishandling the case. Scotland Yard are called into the case early on and Detective Stute comes to investigate matters. Beef assumes he won’t have much to do and even Lionel doesn’t think Beef will compare well to Stute. But we know better… We watch Stute zealously and energetically follow up all the case leads, and clues and I think it is reasonable to assume that Bruce is parodying the methodical and systematic approach perpetuated by Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French. I don’t think many readers will be surprised that for all this busyness Stute repeatedly hits dead ends and we eagerly wait for Beef to upend expectations. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review mirrors this sentiment writing in their clipped manner that the book is ‘frequently hilarious burlesque of famed Scotland Yard efficiently compared to rural rule-of-thumb methods. Good puzzle and tricky finish.’
Bruce keeps the investigation going well, sustaining reader interest without running out of steam, though for me I think we spend insufficient page time with Beef; a weakness which did prevent the book from getting a higher rating. Bruce exploits the gimmick of the book well, but I imagine most readers will latch onto the main element of Beef’s solution, as in some ways it is the only satisfying one available. Fortunately, the case has a number of additional elements and details which means Beef’s exposition at the end of the book still has points of interest.