"The past is the father of the present."- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party, 1969)
There is something familiar about the story of a body in the proverbial library of a dreary, Victorian-era mansion and an ornamental, bloodstained dagger covered with incriminating fingerprints. It's a premise so familiar it borders on cliché, but Rupert Croft-Cooke wouldn't have been "Leo Bruce," if he hadn't found a way to sidestep the trite and tropes of the Roaring Twenties – while spoofing them at the same time, of course!
Leo Bruce's penchant for tongue-in-cheek mysteries was cemented in his debut novel, Case for Three Detectives (1936), in which caricatures of Hercule Poirot, Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey try to unravel a locked room murder mirroring the plotting techniques of their creators. It was, however, a village policeman, by the name of Sgt. Beef, who solved the case with dull, routine police work as opposed to the intricate, fanciful theories erupting from the amateur reasoners.
Case with No Conclusion (1939) opens with a note from the former police sergeant to his longsuffering chronicler, Mr. Lionel Townsend, announcing he's now a private investigator with quarters near Baker Street – the "Harley Street of Detection." Townsend struggles with the concept of Beef as a discreet, private-investigator, but Beef suspects Townsend's portrayal of him as a blundering, speech impaired buffoon in uniform is to blame for the lack of clients. They've zero respect for the fourth wall as commentary from Milward Kennedy and Raymond Postgate are cited, while throwing about allusions to other detectives and their famous biographers. I especially liked the part when Beef began to complain about the stiff competition: "There was that nice little case the other day, for instance, that would just have suited me. Body found in a brewer's vat. And who got the job? Nigel Strangeways, of course, Nicholas Blake's detective." Bruce will let you know you're reading a detective story!
However, there are still more than enough cases and one of them soon finds its way to Beef and Townsend: Mr. Peter Ferrers is the co-editor of a small, leftist newspaper and his brother is to stand trial for the murder of an old family friend, Dr. Benson. The doctor was found on the morning after a small party in the library, stabbed in the throat, when it was presumed he had left the previous evening. A blood smeared, ornamental dagger lays in its usual spot on the desk and the handle has Stewart's fingerprints on it like a signed confession. There was, as to be expected, a violent quarrel between both men, before the party broke up, and Stewart may've been fooling around with Benson's wife – giving the police a nice, clean-cut case to hand over to the prosecution.
Beef and Townsend come in a fortnight after the facts, and the later is immediately annoyed at the unusual methods of the former, because being forced to steal liquor from your client to test it for poison is far off the beaten track in a stabbing case. Evidently, Bruce had a lot of fun writing about Beef and his Boswellian narrator, while poking fun at the genre, but Bruce was besides a good humorist also a very decent plotter. There are clues and hints placed, here and there, while Beef seemingly blunders to a premature end of his career, but I can't delve much deeper in that – because ethics of the mystery reviewer.
I'll say this, though, the story takes dark turn when Peter Ferrers has to stand trial for the murder of Dr. Benson, but the way Bruce handled the newspaper angle and public reactions is what made Case with No Conclusion one to remember. Even the parodies from Case for Three Detectives responded to the outcome of the trial. Of course, there's final revelation, but, again, ethics. Detective stories. Reviewer. You know the story. And that is just my luck. Finally dug up a detective story that I fully enjoyed and I can't tell too much about the plot, which, of course, translates in a badly written and shaky review.
Oh, well, I'll dig up another unapologetic, traditionally plotted mystery for the next review.