Book review by George S: Case with 4 Clowns (1939) is the fourth of Leo Bruce’s Sergeant Beef novels, and it’s not the one to start with, since in it Leo Bruce gives away several spoilers about the outcomes of previous books in the series. He could be careless about that sort of thing – though always meticulous about what mattered most – his plotting.
To appreciate Beef properly, you need to start with the first book, Case for Three Detectives (1936). This is an intriguing book – maybe less a detective novel than a parody of detective novels, but none the worse for that.
In Case for Three Detectives, after some sinister scene-setting in a country house, a murder occurs, and then:
Quite early the next morning those indefatigably brilliant private investigators who seem to be always handy when a murder has been committed, began to arrive. I had some knowledge of their habits, and guessed at once what had happened to bring them here. One had probably been staying in the district, another was a friend of Dr. Tate’s, while a third, perhaps, had already been asked to stay with the Thurstons. At any rate, it was not long before the house seemed to be alive with them, crawling about on floors, applying lenses to the paint-work, and asking the servants the most unexpected questions.
The three detectives are amusing parodies of Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown (Monsignor Smith, the Brown substitute, talks exclusively in Chestertonian paradoxes, and is very well done indeed). Each of the three investigates, using his usual methods, and each in turn comes up with a totally different, dazzlingly clever, solution to the murder mystery. The detectives and also the narrator are immensely condescending to Beef, the local policeman, who is out of place in the country house:
With his raw red face and thirsty moustache he looked as though he would have been happier in the local public bar.
Beef listens politely to the detectives, as he has been told to do by his superiors, but frequently says that of course he knows who did it – : ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ He puts together the pieces of evidence that the detectives have been too clever to understand, and at the end says:
‘I told those gentlemen ’oo came down to investigate right from the start that it was too simple a case for them.’
In the next Beef novel, Case Without a Corpse, Beef is in competition with a meticulous Scotland Yard detective of the sort who appears in the Freeman Wills Croft maps and timetables kind of novel, and again he is victorious.
In Case with no Conclusion (1939) Beef sets up as private detective. It’s a very clever book, in which Beef seems to send the wrong man to the gallows, and is publicly shamed.
This is where he is at the start of Case with 4 Clowns. Bad publicity has ruined his private detective business, when he receives a letter from his nephew, who is with a circus. The gipsy fortune-teller has predicted that a murder will happen there. Beef goes to Yorkshire to investigate, and Townsend, who narrates all the books, goes with him, rather unwillingly.
The relation between Beef and Townsend is amusingly done. Townsend is torn between condescension towards Beef and admiration for him. Beef feels that having a writer is something that any detective needs, but he does not find Townsend satisfactory. As he says in Case with no Conclusion:
You don’t seem to make much of my cases. Not what some of them do for their detectives. Case Without a Corpse never hardly got no notices at all in the newspapers. Not like Miss Christie, or Mr Freeman Wills Croft. They do get taken notice of. All you got for me was a bit in the Sunday Times, and not a smell from the Observer.
He points out that the very nice murder in the fashion industry went to Mr Campion, because he has Margery Allingham writing for him.
I need someone who can show I’ve got brilliance, insight, intuition, psychology, and all those remarkable things the others are supposed to have – though they don’t work out anything more difficult than I do. It’s disheartening, that’s what it is.
At the circus, Beef and Townsend soon find a tangle of jealousies and antagonisms, and plenty of means by which a murder could be committed to seem like an accident. In the end, most of the things Townsend has noted as suspicious are shown to be quite harmless by Beef, while one clue, embedded near the beginning of the book and passed over by Townsend (and myself and I assume almost every reader) points to the unpleasant truth.
By the time of this novel, Leo Bruce has moved away from parody towards more or less straight detection, and he would keep on writing detective stories. Under his real name Rupert Croft-Cooke he also wrote thirty-odd non-detective novels, plus other non-fiction. a series of twenty-seven autobiography-come-travel books. This prolific writing habit seems to have started in 1932, when his novel, Cosmopolis, (later republished as The White Mountain), based on his time as a teacher in a school in Switzerland, was withdrawn from publication on grounds of possible slander. Thereafter his publisher, Hutchinson, drew up a crippling contract compelling him to write four novels a year in order to pay off the debts incurred by the company.
He wrote eight Beef books in all, the last in 1952. From 1954 until his death in 1974 he wrote books featuring another detective, the schoolmaster Carolus Deene. These are just as ingenious as the Beef books, and highly recommended. The puzzles are always clever, and do not cheat the reader. In a footnote to one of the Deene novels, he writes:
A critic recently accused me of being ‘frantically serious’ about the problem set in one of these books. I can’t quite see the point of a who-dun-it unless the thing is laid out as fair and square as a crossword.
A historical footnote: Croft-Cooke was homosexual, and in 1953 was arrested on rather dubious grounds, after he and a friend had picked up two sailors in the Fitzroy Tavern, and entertained them at his house in Sussex. He was sent to prison for six months, and afterwards lived mostly outside Britain. His case was one of those discussed by the Wolfenden Committee.