(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Leo Bruce’s Sergeant William Beef and Carolus Deene novels have been praised as “superb examples of classic British mystery,” his plots have been described as “brilliantly ingenious,” and Bruce himself has been called “a master of the genre.” Yet, if his fame rests on his skill with the classic form, his chief importance to the history of the genre lies in his perfection of the immensely entertaining and parodic self-conscious detective novel, a subgenre that questions and revises, edits and inverts, occasionally criticizes and lampoons—all with a wry ironic tone—the conventions of the traditional whodunit. In the Sergeant Beef novels, certainly, and to a slightly lesser extent in the Carolus Deene series, the principal characters seem not only aware of their fictional existence but also inclined to use that recognition to remark on their counterparts in other detective stories, on the plots devised by other crime writers, and on the genre as a whole. For the well-read connoisseur of detective fiction, this artifice, which would be a disaster from the pen of a less gifted writer, invests Bruce’s fiction with a double significance: The novels are intricate puzzles that tantalize and fascinate and most of all entertain, and they are also theoretical works in that they provide analytical commentary on the literary form they represent. Thus, Bruce manages, in this most popular of fiction genres, to obey that age-old dictum that literature must both delight and instruct.