RogerBW's Blog

Case for Three Detectives, Leo Bruce 12 August 2018

1936 mystery parody, first of the novels of Sergeant Beef. When Dr Thurston's wife is murdered during a weekend party, it looks like a classic locked room mystery. Three great detectives arrive, and try to solve the conundrum in their own ways. But it's up to the plodding police sergeant to save the day.

The parody works very well: the three detectives, Lord Simon Plimsoll, M. Amer Picon, and Monsignor Smith, are all written in their own authors' styles. To my mind Smith is the real success here, capturing the slightly-silly, slightly-mad style that Chesterton did so well.

"What you forget," murmured Mgr. Smith, "is that there is one thing at least in common between the man who decides to be a murderer and the man who decides to be a monk. It is that each leaves his fellows, and for ever. And nothing that either does to effect that isolation is to be marvelled at. This, too, they have in common—each finds at last a cell. So that while one man cuts an acquaintance, this other cut a telephone wire. And that is all there is to it."

The parodies of the others are slightly less effective (I think perhaps Bruce didn't like them well enough), but the three summings-up manage to account for the same set of evidence in the distinctive style of the sort of crime each man's original would normally solve.

The book doesn't keep to the rules of the game, because we aren't told what Sergeant Beef observes, but his eventual explanation is consistent with what we do know, and he gives some clues by his questions and lack of interest in certain things. (Though his technique at the dénouement is unjustifiably sloppy.) The investigation and revelation of the clues are perhaps a bit slow – as with many contemporary mysteries, there's little personality given to most of the suspects, and keeping a marker on the pages where they'd been introduced was handy – but the explanations make up for it.

My knowledge of these situations, gathered from some study of them, taught me that we were all behaving according to the very best precedents, but I could not help feeling that a man who had just lost his wife might not see it that way. I had learnt that after a murder it is quite proper and conventional for everyone in the house to join the investigators in this entertaining game of hide-and-seek which seemed wholly to absorb us.

Not brilliant, perhaps, but enjoyable, and an interesting hint as to how the series detectives were viewed in their day. Recommended by Lieven Marchand.

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