Case for Sergeant Beef by Leo Bruce

CaseforSergeantBeefWellington Chickle is a retired clockmaker who decides that he wants to be remembered by committing a great murder. He thinks he has hit upon the perfect scheme: if he commits a murder at random then he will not be connected to it by a motive. He moves to a small village in the countryside where no one knows him, works to craft a public image that will lead no one to suspect him and waits for his opportunity.

The best laid plans, of course, inevitably have hitches and while he may have planned his murder to look like a suicide, the deceased’s sister is adamant that the death is suspicious. She hires Sergeant Beef, a former police officer turned private investigator whose exploits are chronicled, in his belief very poorly, by his associate Townsend.

It was JJ who first set me on the trail of this novel when he suggested that, given my love of the inverted mystery sub-genre, I might find it to be an interesting take on that form. Initially I wondered what JJ might be referring to as the novel is, on the face of it, quite a traditional inverted mystery though by its end I quite agreed with him and I was very glad that I had read it.

One of the things that sometimes puzzles friends of mine who know I like the inverted mystery form is that knowing the identity of a murderer from the outset seems to limit the sense of puzzlement for the reader. My answer is usually that when the author takes away the question of the identity of the murderer they normally provide another puzzle for the reader to solve such as detecting the method they have used or what will give them away. There is a reason that the form has been nicknamed the howcatchem after all.

Case for Sergeant Beef however does not really do either of those things. Much of the first quarter of the novel is made up of Wellington Chickle’s journal in which we read about his motivations and plans telling us the why and the how. We know how he will kill his random victim, that he has already procured the means and how he intends to evade detection. We also might deduce from those chapters how he might give himself away. After all, while he may possess an ingenious instinct for committing the perfect crime, his plan is hardly foolproof and there will be good reason for the police to suspect him. On the face of things, Bruce’s mystery is hardly mysterious.

The appeal of this story lies in two things. Firstly, Bruce writes extremely wittily and provides some very entertaining comments on the detective novel as an art form. There are a number of funny remarks made by characters and I particularly enjoyed the very meta moment where we learn that Chickle is actually reading one of the earlier Beef novels while he plans how to commit his own crime. Secondly, there is a development later in the book which means that the reader will actually have a crime to deduce the answer to.

For those two reasons, I would describe Case for Sergeant Beef as a strong choice for a tentative toe-dip into the inverted mystery form for those who really don’t think they’d like hearing the killer’s thoughts. Chickle is a striking character in the Alexander Bonaparte Cust-mold and so those chapters read more as quirky than dark. While elements of the story’s resolution were not unexpected, I felt Bruce delivered those small moments well. This is helped by the novel’s snappy pacing that keeps the action moving throughout.

Sergeant Beef himself is an entertaining character. The novel does not take a lot of time to introduce him but does so quite effectively and I enjoyed his repeated complaints to Townsend about the lack of literary impact the release of books about his adventures have had which he blames on Townsend’s lacklustre writing style.

Sadly I cannot say much else about the novel without significantly spoiling it and given its brevity, I do want to make sure to preserve its surprises. I can say though that I enjoyed Case for Sergeant Beef a lot and I am excited to read other books by Bruce. Hopefully I will be able to track a few down soon.

 

12 thoughts on “Case for Sergeant Beef by Leo Bruce

  1. In the early 50s, Bruce dropped Sergeant Beef in favour of an amateur detective named Carolus Deene, whom he kept writing about for decades. I’ve read a half dozen or so of the Deene books so far and they’re well worth reading. There’s less humour than in the Beef books and no metafictional game playing of the kind in Case for Three Detectives… but they’re generally good solid puzzles, entertainingly written.

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  2. Glad I came across this post on twitter as it hadn’t come up in my wordpress newsfeed. Glad you have enjoyed this one. I liked it too when I reviewed it earlier this year. I also equally like a good inverted mystery and agree that writers can still provide a lot of other surprises other than identity. Malice Aforethought is priceless in this regard. Hope you return to the Beef books soon. I’ve enjoyed all the ones I have read so far. The humour works for me.

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    1. Unfortunately when I began writing it the date was boxing day and by the time I hit save we were in the early hourrs of this morning and so WordPress backdated it. Very annoying!

      I will definitely be picking up more Leo Bruce based on this. They are a hoot!

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  3. Delighted to hear you enjoyed this seemingly as much as I do — when on form (and he wasn’t always, yeesh) Bruce is a fabulous farceur of the Great Detective and associated trappings as well as a spectacularly inventive and cunning plotter. This and …Three Detectives represent the pinnacles of the series I’ve tracked down to date, with …Without a Corpse being good if a little tedious and both …Four Clowns and Ropes and Rings being hideously drawn out with little to commend them to the unwary.

    Neck and Neck and Cold Blood I’m yet to find, but hope springs eternal that a) I do, and b) they’re worth the effort! Will be interested to see what you make of Bruce when you return to him, especially if they’re titles I’ve not yet found.

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  4. I have to agree with JJ that Case for Sergeant Beef is one of the highlights of the series and one of the stronger inverted mysteries from the Golden Age. Your right that the inverted mystery can be as good and fun as an old-fashioned whodunit or a clever locked room conundrum, but really depends on who’s writing them.

    Anthony Berkeley wrote an inverted detective story that used a similar premise as Case for Sergeant Beef. Trial and Error has a dying man who plans to leave behind a better world by taking a nasty individual out of it, but he ends up having to proof his own guilt in order to exonerate an innocent person. It has a great scene in the condemned cell at the end of the book! If you love inverted mysteries, you’ll be able to appreciate Berkeley’s take on it.

    You’re probably already aware of Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt, but recently I came across two lesser-known, but fine, examples of the inverted detective story: Except for One Thing and Pattern of Murder. The first title leaves open the question of what happened to the body and the answer is as great as it is gruesome. The second one is a more straightforward inverted tale, but the draw here is that you get see an impossible crime being committed through the eyes of the murderer. And loved the cinema setting.

    So you can feed those suggestions to your wish list. 🙂

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  5. Pretty much in agreement with JJ on the Beef novels. Definitely worth getting Three Detectives if you can , but I wouldn’t read too many Beefs – or Deenes – in a row. Hope you enjoy Clowns, anyway.

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