Wellington 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.