Case for Sergeant Beef by Leo Bruce

CaseforSergeantBeef
Case for Sergeant Beef
Leo Bruce
Originally Published 1951
Sergeant Beef #6
Preceded by Case with Ropes and Rings
Followed by Neck and Neck

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.

Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith

Portrait
Portrait of a Murderer
Anne Meredith
Originally Published 1934

The festive season is upon us and so I plan to mark the occasion in my own way by reading five books which feature people being murdered against snowy, picturesque backdrops.

I am kicking off the week of reviews with a book that was published as part of the British Library Crime Classics collection. This will not be the only book I will be selecting from that series this week!

This novel is credited to Anne Meredith which, it turns out, was a pseudonym used by Lucy Beatrice Malleson of Anthony Gilbert fame. In a strange coincidence, I posted a response to a fellow blogger’s review last week while I was already reading this novel saying that I needed to try something by Anthony Gilbert and asking for suggestions. In my defense, I tend to skip over the introductions until after I have read the main text for fear of being spoiled.

I first learned about this book from reading a review on crossexaminingcrime. There were lots of reasons I was excited to read this book but chief among them was that Portrait of a Murderer is an inverted mystery. Those who have been following this blog for a while may have noticed that I am having something of a love affair with this form of crime fiction and so this was a particular attraction for me as I was curious to see how a different author would approach writing this type of story.

Typically the inverted crime novel gives the reader knowledge of the killer’s identity and presents the crime and the events that follow from their perspective. While we may know the killer’s identity, the mystery comes from the reader wondering how they will either be caught or evade justice.

In Portrait of a Murderer the author makes some slight tweaks to that formula to create a story that I think combines the best of both worlds by shifting perspectives throughout. She does this by dividing her novel into three distinct sections.

The first and shortest is a series of chapters, written in the third person, that introduce each of the potential killers who will arrive at Kings Poplars to speak with Adrian Gray in the hope of extracting money from him. Throughout this stage we have little idea who will be responsible for killing Gray and so the question is who will kill him and what will have occurred that pushed them over the edge.

The second section brings a shift into a first person narration style as we hear that character recount the events that led them to murder Gray and how they plan on escaping from the situation. The decision to shift to the first person is a smart one, allowing the reader to understand the rationale behind the decisions they are making to dress the crime scene in the hopes of making their escape. This section concludes at about the halfway point of the novel.

The final section switches back to the third person and begins shortly before the discovery of the body. The author presents us with several different characters who are trying to piece together what has happened and so, in addition to wondering if and how the murderer will be caught and how the lives of the other family members will be affected. We may also wonder who will manage to work out what had happened.

I absolutely loved this book and I think its success begins with this unusual structure. By shifting our point of perspective throughout the novel, the author provides variety within their narrative. This helps keep the material from becoming stale or repetitive, as can sometimes happen with a character who is continually worrying about being caught, and it allows us to experience multiple perspectives on the crime.

For instance, in the chapters that follow the murder we get to see how the various characters are responding to the crime that had been committed and how they are feeling about each other. This gives those characters added depth and also allows us to see their different perspectives of what a positive outcome to the investigation would be as well as the different ways that it affects their lives which is often quite unexpected.

Meredith’s characterization is as impressive as her structure and I was fascinated by the cast of family members that she creates. Each of them feel quite distinctive and have complex feelings towards Adrian Gray and each other. They have different goals that create division, in one instance between a married couple, and we learn how the possible suspects have each fallen into quite separate, dire financial circumstances that threaten to destroy them. These stories are all quite compelling and I thought the novel was unusually reflective about the different ways in which the murder will affect their lives going forward while the ending strikes a curious note that I wish I could discuss in more detail but fear I can’t without spoiling. I can say though that I found it to be quite effective.

These elements all combine to make one of the most interesting books I have read in the British Library Crime Classics series to date. With striking characters, moments of social commentary and a compelling plot, I found myself gripped throughout and thoroughly enjoyed its conclusion. I will clearly need to seek out some Anthony Gilbert books soon…

The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

FromCroydon
The 12:30 From Croydon
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1934
Inspector French #11
Preceded by The Hog’s Back Mystery
Followed by Mystery on Southampton Water

At the start of this month I published my thoughts on Antidote to Venom, a later novel by Freeman Wills Crofts that has some structural similarities to this one. Both titles are examples of the inverted mystery form in which we experience events from the perspective of the murderer as they plan and execute the seemingly perfect murder. Unfortunately both books feature bland detective Inspector French.

There is some good news however for those who are French-averse. The 12.30 From Croydon really keeps the detective in the background for almost the whole narrative as our murderer is largely in the dark about what French is up to.

The novel begins with a trip being made to France by aircraft when one of the passengers is found to have died during the flight. Crofts then has us jump back in time several months to see the events leading up to that moment from the murderer’s perspective.

As with many inverted mysteries, our killer is a character who finds themselves in need of financial relief. Charles Swinburn is the owner of a factory that is increasingly stretched as it struggles to survive an economic downturn. It is becoming increasingly clear that the company will not be able to compete for contracts without significant investment being made but Charles himself is stretched and keen to maintain his quality of life as he seeks to marry.

Charles needs a speedy windfall and he has an elderly relative who might just provide that. During those early chapters we see the character start to develop his plan, prepare to execute it and start to come up with justifications for his actions such as protecting the livelihoods of his employees. He is perhaps a little less sympathetic than George Surridge was in Antidote to Venom as it is quite clear that he is entirely the architect of his own destruction, but that does not make him any the less interesting.

Experienced from his perspective, Charles’ plan seems quite ingenious and almost undetectable. We might come to share his sense of confidence in that plan as he works through each step as, unlike in Antidote, the plan is entirely of his own devising and he has sole responsibility for its execution. Perhaps more importantly, because French’s investigation occurs largely in the background, we are unaware what he has learned and how he is piecing things together and so we may well wonder how French could possibly deduce Charles’ involvement and how the thing was managed.

The explanation occurs in an extremely well-managed conclusion and everything is laid out very clearly. Because some of that explanation is given by French it is still a little dry but here at least I can see some basis for JJ’s argument made in the comments of my previous review that French’s plodding style makes the strength of his deductive reasoning the focus rather than the detective’s flourishes of brilliance or dramatic gestures. Certainly I thought that the resolution to the story was extremely well managed and I was impressed by the detective’s chain of reasoning that leads him to his conclusion.

While I do think the resolution of this novel is far more entertaining than that of Antidote to Venom, I do think there are a few ways in which this story compares a little less favorably. For instance, while the murder method employed here is certainly more credible, it is also a little more straightforward and familiar. I also think that our sympathy for George gave his story an almost tragic quality yet in this novel Charles, for all of his attempts at justification, is clearly cast in the role of villain. As a result, this story feels a little less rich and complex and, judged purely as examples of the inverted mystery I would say that Antidote is the more interesting work.

If I was asked to pick between the two books however I would say that this is simply a more enjoyable tale to read. Partly that is because of French’s absence for much of the story but I also think that it comes down to a question of agency. Charles’ is ultimately responsible for his own actions and we feel closer to his thinking as he makes each decision that will ultimately lead him to destruction. After witnessing everything from his perspective, the ending has all the more punch. So much so that not even the inevitable tedious and long-winded explanation from French on the last few pages can spoil it!

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

Antidote
Antidote to Venom
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1938
Inspector French #17
Preceded by Found Floating
Followed by The End of Andrew Harrison

Antidote to Venom is an example of a crime fiction sub-genre that I have absolutely fallen in love with over the past year: the inverted crime novel.

While I had been aware that there were mystery stories written from the perspective of the criminal, in the past year I have come to read several really excellent examples of this form, several of which are from this range of British Library Crime Classics. When written well, this allows the reader to experience the crime from the perpetrator’s perspective, understand their decision making and watch them sweat as the detective seems to get closer and closer. As the reader knows who did the crime and how, the question they must consider is just how the detective will manage to piece everything together.

Our criminal in this book is George Surridge, the director of the Birmington Zoo. At the start of the novel we learn that he is trapped in a marriage that has turned loveless and cold because he and his wife are unable to afford their lifestyle on his small salary. George feels sure that if only he could receive a promised inheritance from his Aunt, all of his problems would be solved…

A recurring theme of the inverted mystery form is that the events begin to spiral out of the murderer’s control, forcing increasingly reckless actions. When George meets a sweet and charming young woman he falls hopelessly in love with her and ends up making her his mistress, only exacerbating his financial woes. Ultimately these pressures all build on George and push him to commit murder in the hopes of staving off ruin and starting a new life for himself.

Crofts’ approach to writing is extremely methodical and, at times, seems to be a little ponderous and heavy-handed. This is particularly true of the end of the book which incorporates some spiritual reflection that can feel a little preachy and heavy-handed but the conclusion of the novel benefits from the clear and careful buildup as Wills is able to clearly explain to the reader what has happened and why.

George struck me as a convincing character, even if his plan for dispatching his victim seems ludicrously convoluted. He does some very grubby things in the course of this narrative, not least committing murder, yet I could understand his feelings of hopelessness and empathize with his desire to feel loved and a sense of affection.

The scheme that he utilizes to dispatch his victim is rather ingenious and quite memorable. It is certainly an original enough scheme that it threatens to stump Crofts’ series investigator, Inspector French, who finally shows up in the narrative’s final third to attempt to piece things together by being incredibly methodical and diligent.

The author, Freeman Wills Crofts, has something of a reputation as being quite a dull writer which I think is not particularly fair. I certainly have found several of his stories to be quite exciting and to be based on some interesting ideas. Yet while I think that descriptor is unfairly applied to the writer, I certainly think it can be used about his series detective.

I find it quite mystifying that a character such as Inspector French managed to appear in such a large number of books and yet seems so devoid of personality. While there is no questioning his brilliance at solving mysterious murders, I never feel he has a life beyond the narratives he gets caught up in. Here it is interesting to observe how he works to piece this case together when the murder method seemed so foolproof.

So, if the writing can be ponderous and the investigator is a bore, why do I like this book? Firstly, I think that the zoo setting is fun and quite memorable and I liked the way the zoo itself figures into the crime that is committed.

Secondly, George is an interesting and complex character. He does a terrible thing in the course of the story and yet we understand part of what has driven him to that place. While I think the elements of the ending reflecting issues of faith are heavy-handed, I did appreciate that Crofts is trying to introduce some ideas and a process of introspection for a character that are quite unusual in the genre.

Finally, the concept of the crime here is rather clever and it is the sort that sticks in the head. I was quite impressed by the way George attempts to set up the crime scene to hide his own involvement and I was curious to see how French would seek to piece things together.

Is it Crofts best work? No. Nor do I consider it to be even his best inverted mystery. Still, the story is quite pleasing in spite of its flaws and I resolved on completing the book that I would try to give French another shot soon.

The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

Collini
The Collini Case
Ferdinand von Schirach
Originally Published 2011

The Collini Case opens with a moment of brutality as Fabrizio Collini walks into a hotel room where Hans Meyer, a man in his eighties, is staying and viciously kills him. He then reports himself to the Police and waits calmly in the lobby to be taken into custody. He freely admits that he was responsible and offers no explanation for why he has committed the crime.

His court-appointed lawyer, Casper Leinen, has only been qualified for two months and has never defended a case before. He is already stumped about how he will mount a defense when he learns that he has a personal connection to the case that causes him to doubt whether he should have taken the case in the first place.

While I have described The Collini Case as a legal thriller for the purposes of categorization on this blog, it is perhaps better described as having two clear themes that it develops. The first is the question of the role the public defender must play and their responsibility to a client, even if they do not like them. This is best summed up in an early conversation between Leinen and his adversary and mentor, the prosecution lawyer Professor Richard Mattinger, which is recalled at several points throughout the work.

The second theme concerns the nature of justice and its relationship to the law. My determination not to provide spoilers in my reviews prevents me from being more explicit about how that manifests in this case but as this book draws on aspects of the author’s own life that he referred to in interviews around the time this was released in the English-speaking market, a quick Google search should give you a little more context on what precisely is being discussed here.

Not that this will be much of a mystery for many readers. While these questions suggest that this book might be a mystery, the context of the crime makes motivation quite easy to infer within the first few chapters and so our focus remains fairly tightly on these two themes.

That tight thematic focus is reinforced by the structure of the book which only presents us with the steps in the trial that most clearly relate to the novel’s themes. The actual trial itself is confined to just a couple of chapters at the end of the novel and focuses almost entirely on a single cross examination of a witness. This is not ineffective but it may lead some to question whether it can really be called a mystery or a legal thriller at all.

As I finished reading the novel I was struck by a comparison to a work by John Grisham, The Confession. In that novel Grisham seems to be primarily writing to make a political point about the death penalty and aspects of the plot are developed in service of that theme. The Collini Case takes a similarly campaigning approach to its storytelling, especially in some of the comments made during that long cross examination sequence but its brevity and the tone of the ending keep this from feeling manipulative.

The downside of that brevity is that it does not allow space for supporting characters to develop. Arguably the key character of Johanna never quite makes her stamp on the narrative, being seemingly portrayed more as a representation of what Leinen is giving up for the sake of the case rather than a fully fleshed out character in her own right. This is particularly frustrating because her perspective on the case ought to be so interesting based on her own involvement and because her first interaction with Leinen after he accepts the case is one of the most powerful moments in the book.

In spite of some weak characterization, I did appreciate how well this book devotes itself to its themes and I did appreciate the spartan prose style the writer adopts. While the mystery content is lacking, it will interest readers with an interest in criminal justice systems and its themes lend themselves well to discussion. Though this didn’t entirely hit the spot for me,  I would certainly be curious to try another of von Schirach’s works in the future.