(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

On the surface, the Sergeant Beef novels and the Carolus Deene novels appear to be quite dissimilar. The Beef chronicles have an engaging middle-class ponderousness that is wholly in keeping with Sergeant Beef’s person and behavior, while the Deene stories sparkle with wit and iridescent one-liners. Aside from his shadow, Lionel Townsend, Sergeant Beef has only a small cast of supporting players—his nearly invisible wife and Chief Inspector Stute of the Special Branch—onstage with him; Carolus Deene must constantly deal with a crowd of regulars—Hugh Gorringer and his wife, Mrs. Stick and her laconic husband, the sometimes annoying but always bright Rupert Priggley, and Deene’s friend John Moore of the Criminal Investigation Department—who are so brilliantly realized as characters that they add life and entertainment to the novels without detracting from the suspenseful narratives. Beef is decidedly, unabashedly bourgeois with a strong element of the working class; Deene describes himself as “repulsively rich” and lives in a Queen Anne house presided over by an eminently respectable housekeeper who serves him gourmet meals with vintage wine. William Beef investigates crimes because detection is his profession; Deene detects out of a love for puzzles (he is constantly in competition with another schoolmaster for the morning newspaper’s crossword) and an obsession with finding the truth. Beef’s detractors call him lucky rather than competent; Deene has a reputation for improbable theories that turn out to be accurate.

Superficial differences aside, however, Leo Bruce’s two detective series have important characteristics in common. Bruce’s novels are conventional stories of the type known variously as traditional British, Golden Age detective story, whodunit, or even puzzle mystery. As examples of a classic form familiar to aficionados of crime and mystery fiction, the Sergeant Beef and Carolus Deene books display Bruce’s adept handling of genre conventions: the basically comic universe, the presence of a great detective, locked rooms and perfect alibis, the closed circle of suspects from which the murderer (the crime in question is always murder) is eventually identified, clues—obvious and otherwise—and misdirections, a believable solution that somehow restores order to a society turned topsy-turvy, and the great detective’s summing up of the facts of the case. Even Bruce’s settings are familiar: little English villages with quaint hyphenated names located on or near bodies of water or distinct geological formations, proper seaside resorts, picturesque cottages and stately country homes, and respectable London suburbs. Although the murders are violent, Bruce rarely if ever provides explicit details of either method or aftermath; his treatment of crime has the delicacy and understatement of the traditional detective novels rather than the gritty realism of the newer, American crime novel. Bruce’s characters belong to the world of the Golden Age: His detectives carry no weapons and rely solely on the interview and the reenactment for results; minor characters are succinctly sketched character types—respectable citizens, eccentrics, obsequious tradespeople, loyal or disgruntled domestics, dotty parsons.

Case for Three Detectives

Another similarity between the two series is the self-mocking tone present in many of the individual books. Bruce excelled at constructing self-parodying detective novels in which some characters display a tendency to remark—often critically—on the conventions of the genre and the expectations of readers long familiar with those conventions. Bruce’s first detective novel sets the tone for the rest. In Case for Three Detectives, Sergeant Beef solves a murder that completely baffles three eminent sleuths—Lord Simon Plimsoll, Monsieur Amer Picot, and Monsignor Smith—clearly intended as parodies of Wimsey, Poirot, and Father Brown. The Sergeant Beef novels are particularly self-conscious; they are narrated by a writer of detective fiction, more specifically, by the novelist who records and then fictionalizes the adventures of Sergeant Beef. Lionel Townsend, the writer, has very specific—and rather elitist—ideas about the nature of detective fiction, ideas with which Sergeant Beef does not agree, and their frequent arguments turn on such matters as plot development, the detective’s personality, the role of a Watson, and the criteria by which readers judge the success or failure of a detective series. Bruce also calls attention to his fiction by alluding to characters who...

(The entire section is 1874 words.)