For someone who as a rule finds putting titles in order of preference a stressful activity, I am baffled and impressed, in equal measure, that I have managed a third such list in two months, (no stopping me now!)
This list though seemed a fitting one to do as this week I completed my reading of Leo Bruce’s Sergeant Beef’s mysteries, narrated by Watson-sidekick Lionel Townsend. If you like humorous detective fiction, then this is definitely a series I recommend you try.
Thankfully unlike my ranking of Christmas mysteries, today’s list is much shorter, as Beef only features in eight novels, (and some short stories, though they aren’t included in this list). Nevertheless, I should mention that the brevity of his appearances, did not make ranking Beef’s cases any easier.
No. 8 – Case with Four Clowns (1939)
My placing of this title will be the least contentious choice on this list, as common consensus decrees this to be a “dud” novel by Bruce, and common consensus really is correct in this case. Bruce experiments a lot in this series with upending genre tropes or pushing the boundaries of a particular element. Experimentation always entails some risk and in this story the experimentation fails. In this tale Bruce tries to write a mystery in which murder is forewarned but does not occur until 30 pages away from the end. In the previous 280 pages Lionel and Beef have to figure out who the victim could be, why they might be killed, how they might be killed and importantly who by. Basic arithmetic will indicate the primary reason this book does not work very well and added to this the investigation lacks enough direction and the reader has too much information withheld from them. JJ who writes The Invisible Event blog sums it up well when he said this book, ‘is a short story at the end of 280 pages of circus travelogue.’
No. 7 – Case for Sergeant Beef (1947)
This story sees Beef, as a private investigator, looking into the death of Edith Shoulter’s brother. It is presumed to be a suicide, but she thinks it is a murder. In conjunction with this, the book plays around with the inverted mystery concept, including extracts from Wellington Chickle’s diary, in which he is planning the perfect murder. Despite not everything being quite what it seems, the main issue with this story is its simplicity. The story is clever yet remains sufficiently simple that the final solution is not unexpected, and I don’t see what alternatives Bruce could have chosen. Given some of the titles further down the list I think I expected more plot complexity from Bruce. However, Bruce’s humour continues to entertain from the tetchy relationship between Lionel and Beef to moments of metafiction in which Beef spouts the belief that mystery writers only include inquests in their stories to pad them out.
No. 6 – Neck and Neck (1951)
Bruce gives the plot of this story a more personal feel, having Lionel’s aunt as the murder victim. Whilst Lionel is wondering how much he can trust his relatives, it seems like it is he who lacks the cast iron alibi and is in need of Sergeant Beef’s help to solve the case and clear his name. This book also has the novelty factor of Beef working on two cases at the same time, as he is also investigating the death of a publisher in the Cotswolds. The humour in this tale is more low key and whilst this story is a good all rounder in terms of writing style, characterisation and pacing, the solution may disappoint the seasoned mystery fiction reader. The solution fits the storyline and is good but it’s the sort of solution which only wows on first appearance. On the plus side Bruce does have other surprises up his sleeve for readers though.
No. 5 – Case with no Conclusion (1939)
The title quickly reveals what Bruce is experimenting with this time round and I’m sure I was not the only reader to mentally go: A mystery with no conclusion? Really? Is that possible? The murder itself is conventional in being the well-known body in the library, but this is a far from simple case for Beef to solve. Much humour is generated by Lionel’s dim view of the man whose cases he is chronicling and he remains surprised by Beef’s success rate. We also get a series of intertextual references to other mystery novels; the cases of which Beef would have liked to have been asked to solve. Bit of a no brainer when one of the suggestions is Nicholas Blake’s There’s Trouble Brewing. We also have Lionel lamenting the poor material he has to work with, finding Beef’s case too cliched. The ending might not be 100% satisfying but it avoids being overly simple and nor is it highly predictable and given the task Bruce has given himself, his execution of the “no conclusion” concept is well written and humorously done.
No. 4 – Case Without a Corpse (1937)
Now we are into the top four and it is here that my decision making slowed down as I pondered where the remaining titles should go in the list. In the end the main reason Case Without a Corpse missed out being in the top 3 was its more minimal presence of Beef, who remains in the background for large chunks of the book. There is a reason for it, namely to show up the Scotland Yard inspector at the end of the book, but consequently I feel the humour factor of the story suffered. In contrast to the Case with Four Clowns, the experimental factor of this book; a murder case in which the investigators don’t know who has been killed and where their body is, is well explored and deployed by Bruce and reader interest is maintained throughout the story. Bruce’s send up of the Inspector French school of sleuthing is well-conceived, though again as with the Case for Sergeant Beef, the solution is partially well anticipated by the reader.
No. 3 – Case with Ropes and Rings (1940)
Beef’s case takes him to a school gymnasium death in which a boy, after winning the school boxing competition, seemingly takes his own life. Yet Beef believes it was murder. Half way through the tale though Beef is led in another and unexpected direction that takes him beyond the school gates. The fractious dynamic between Sergeant Beef and Lionel is in fine form in this story, with Lionel extra out of sorts because the school the death takes place at, is the one in which his brother works at and unsurprisingly, he does not get on well with his sibling. This book demonstrates well one of Bruce’s many achievements in the Beef series, namely his creation and utilisation of Lionel. We see events through Lionel’s eyes, though we rarely ever see things Lionel’s way. Lionel is an unsympathetic narrator, yet without him the comedy of the book, (and the series, for that matter), would disappear with him. Snobbery and social pretensions are thoroughly lampooned in Lionel and Bruce, in this book, also entertainingly plays around with the love interest trope, (and no Lionel does not get the girl!)
Whilst I wouldn’t read this book for the how-dunnit element, this book is well-plotted with the narrative splitting into two threads half way through the novel, which seemingly diverge, but which are woven back together in the denouement. The clues for this case are cleverly concealed in dialogue. Moreover, I would say the solution for this book is one of Bruce’s most successfully innovative and it pre-empts and anticipates a narrative hook which is better known in a novel which was published a decade later.
No. 2 – Case for Three Detectives (1936)
My hardest decision for this list concerned these final top two titles. Which way round to put them? Case for Three Detectives is the best-known title by Bruce and the one people are most likely to have read. It is also widely considered his best book and the remaining seven are sometimes then overlooked. To begin with I’ll sum up why this is a really good book, and then of course I’ll try and defend my choice of leaving it in second place.
It all centres on a country house murder, nothing unusual in that? But this murder is investigated by not one, but four sleuths, three of which you’ll be very familiar with… Bruce parodies Christie’s Hercule Poirot (M. Amer Picon), Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey (Lord Simon Plimsoll) and Chesterton’s Father Brown (Monsignor Smith) and through Lionel we get to see them have their moment to shine as they pursue their own investigative leads, leaving Sergeant Beef working in the background, quietly confident he knows who’s done it. This experiment in intense parody is effectively accomplished, with Lionel’s hero worship being tempered as events cause him to revaluate his sleuthing heroes. Their individual solutions to the case are also tailored to their personalities and the cases they have previously solved. The murder itself is also a locked room mystery, which is probably another reason it has remained so highly regarded.
With all of these positives, and many more I haven’t enumerated, you may be baffled as to why this title only got second place…
In the end I think it came down to the solutions. Both are clever and the one for the Case for Three Detectives provides an interesting variation on one produced in an earlier famous novel. Yet, how the solution is arrived at does have a slight cheating feel to it. Sergeant Beef has information that the others do not, though in his defence they only lack it as they didn’t go looking for it. Nevertheless, Beef keeps his cards close to his chest so we have no idea what he is thinking until he delivers his solution, which can make the information contained therein feel a little like it has been whipped out of a hat. However, I fully realise that in order for the parody to work Beef has to be kept off centre stage. I go around in circles with this issue and invariably want to have my cake and eat it. Other quibbles I had were over the weakness of the killer’s motivation and Beef’s negligent behaviour at the end of the book.
At the end of the day these issues are minor, but equally there has to be some way of differentiating between second and first place.
No. 1 – Cold Blood (1952)
So, can I make the case that Bruce left his best until last? We’ll see, though to be fair the titles in first and second place are pretty close together in terms of quality. Cold Blood, in my opinion, provides a very fitting bookend to the series, sharing many elements with the first book in the series, Case for Three Detectives. Cold Blood also involves a country house murder and despite being written in the 1950s, it has a strong 1930s vibe. The victim in the case is a little different, being a hermit-like rich man, who is very much under the thumb of others. It is death by croquet mallet for him and there is an obvious suspect with a stack of circumstantial evidence against him. But can Beef prove otherwise?
The book is still humorous, though its intensity has mellowed a little, modified by the novel’s additional tone of emotional and personal impact, on the part of Sergeant Beef. The stakes feel a little higher in this book and interestingly the story’s opening includes this statement: ‘It was as though for the first time in his life he was in what is rightly called “deadly” earnest. For the first time in his life he was a little bit afraid.’ Nevertheless, Beef receives little in the way of support from anyone. His client tried numerous other more famous sleuths first and Lionel is his usual discouraging self, who feels he has to apologise on behalf of Beef for his behaviour and manner of talking. This was the second novel I read in the series and in comparison, to how Lionel is in the Case for Three Detectives, (my first read), I found his more critical Watson role quite intriguing and refreshing. Although I was pleased that things evened themselves out, with Beef putting Lionel in his place at the end of the book.
Characterisation and plotting are both strong in this book making it ideal for those who love a good puzzle to solve, as well as for those who love good characters. Moreover, I would say that the puzzle in this book is better in terms of fair play than it is in Case for Three Detectives, with clues more freely available and with Beef more in the forefront. In fact, in the 20th chapter the issue of fair play comes up as Townsend tells us that we have all the information Beef has and therefore should be able to arrive at the correct solution. There is even a table with questions included. Suffice to say your little grey cells are going to have be particularly bright eyed and bushy tailed to solve this one, as I didn’t really cotton on to what was happening until right at the end, but on balance I felt Bruce gave us a very satisfying solution and there were sneaky but good clues in the book.
It is a little sad to get to the end of a series and know there are no more books coming, but I hope this list is helpful to those who haven’t tried the Beef books before and that it encourages readers to go beyond Case for Three Detectives. It is a great book, but Bruce has more to give than that one book. Given the over-use of Christie for TV and film adaptations I think the Beef series would make an unusual and entertaining basis for a TV series, not least because of the prickly relationship between Lionel and Beef. Now all we have to do is decide which actors will play them…