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Locked Room Reviews:
Three Detectives in a tragic comedy?
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Sometimes, rereading once favourite mysteries brings new revelations, as you discover themes and techniques that you missed the first time around, while other times it only leaves you with a bad taste in the back of your throat. In this instance, rereading ‘A Case for Three Detectives’ took what I had once viewed as a lively, if rather shallow, piece of satire, and turned it into something much darker and perhaps a little frightening. The difference between the first read and the second, was not entirely a matter of my changing tastes, or any new discoveries within the text itself, instead it was the result of a broader understanding of the history that lies behind this novel. ‘A Case for a Three Detectives’ is, to say the least, a very unusual and rather bizarre locked room mystery, that must be viewed within the proper cultural context.
To really understand this book, it is necessary to know a bit about the author and his life and times. Leo Bruce was a pseudonym used by Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903 – 1979), a very prolific English author (writing more than 80 books) of ‘serious’ literary fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including screenplays and biographies, under his own name. As detective stories were still not generally accepted as ‘serious literature’ in his day, Croft-Cooke produced the Sergeant Beef and Carolus Deene mystery novels as Leo Bruce.
In the quite liberal 1920’s and early 30’s, Croft-Cooke was a fairly open homosexual and a vociferous critic of the still dominant imperial culture, which was founded on racism and the class struggle. He was especially critical of the role played by an idle aristocracy and the ‘gentleman detective’ tradition, which had been lionized by such mystery greats as Christie, Allingham, Marsh, Sayers, and Chesterton. Croft-Cooke clearly leaned a little to the left, though he had little sympathy for the communists. He had been educated at Tonbridge School and Wellington College, and by the age of seventeen, was working as a private tutor in Paris. Over the next few years he travelled extensively; spending two years in Buenos Aires, where he founded the journal ‘La Estrella’; living in Germany in 1930, at the height of the ‘Cabaret’ gay culture in Berlin (before 50,000 were sent to the death camps by Hitler); working as a lecturer at the English Institute Montana, in Switzerland in 1931; and spending most of 1932 in Spain, before finally returning to Britain and his writing career. Although Croft-Cooke was an extremely prolific mainstream writer, and believed his detective fiction was inconsequential, it is, quite ironically, largely that detective fiction for which he is remembered today.
However, this relaxed climate did not survive for long, and had largely disappeared well before WWII. Until the early 1930s, gay clubs had openly operated in London, commonly known as “pansy clubs”, but they were soon driven underground – largely due to a return to conservative values during the Great Depression. Part of this abrupt social change was also generated by a new style of moralistic ‘behavioural’ psychology, which argued that homosexuality was a mental disorder, leading to many homosexuals being diagnosed as mental patients (generally know as fruit cakes, or just plain fruity), and treated with very extreme clinical methods, including castrations, lobotomies, pudic nerve surgery, and electroshock treatments. As early as 1927, Croft-Cooke had published ‘How Psychology Can Help’, and he continued to write on new trends in psychology and hosted a popular radio series on the subject before the war – always contesting this rising tide of intellectual anti-gay prejudice. This change of attitude was clearly already underway by the mid 30’s, when this book was written, but grew far worse after the war, finally giving way to a form of social hysteria in the early 50’s, with the Home Secretary of the day, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, arguing that the nation’s morals were being compromised – an argument abetted, amongst more moderate minds, by a real worry over Britain’s struggling security apparatus, which viewed the potential for blackmail of gays as a serious threat.
Many readers will be aware of the famous case of Alan Turing, thanks to the recent movie ‘The Imitation Game’. Turing was a brilliant mathematician and computer pioneer, who broke the Nazi enigma code in WWII, and likely saved the nation, only to be prosecuted for homosexual acts in 1952 and forced to accept chemical castration. However, Turing was far from alone. Over 1000 British men were jailed within a few short years. It was an extremely nasty campaign against the gay community which continued at near panic levels until 1953, when the enforcement of the anti-gay laws was tempered in anticipation of the liberalized recommendations of the Wolfenden report, though that report was not officially released until 1957, and many forms of persecution continued well into the 1970’s.
Rupert Croft-Cooke was caught up in this hysteria in 1953, when he was sent to prison for six months, after being convicted of acts of indecency, although the evidence was more than a little dubious. Croft-Cooke’s secretary and companion, Joseph Alexander, introduced him to two Navy cooks, Harold Altoft and Ronald Charles Dennis, in the Fitzroy Tavern near Tottenham Court Road in London. They spent the weekend at Croft-Cooke’s house in East Sussex, where copious quantities of alcohol were consumed, and both sailor’s had sex with Croft-Cooke and Alexander, but on their way home, they got drunk and assaulted two men, one a police officer. They were immediately arrested and soon maneuvered into testifying against Croft-Cooke – and given full immunity on the assault charges.
The trial began on October 8, 1953 and put Rupert Croft-Cooke squarely in the harsh public spotlight. At the trial several well connected friends took the stand as character witnesses, but Rupert Croft-Cooke was still sentenced to nine months in prison and served six months at Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton Prison. Croft-Cooke left England soon after this ordeal, and lived as an expat in Morroco for 15 years, only returning to Britain in the late sixties, after the ‘sexual revolution’. It must have been an extremely difficult time, yet Croft- Cooke later noted:
“I did not, as I have said, mind in the least being thought a homosexual. I might have been irritated by any suggestion that I was a homosexual of the inverted, effeminate type, but that would have been because it reflected on my manhood, not because it reflected on my morals”(The Verdict of You All, page 68). Rupert Croft-Cooke also wrote that he felt that his conviction and imprisonment did not hinder his career, and that he was actually glad that it had all happened because he had learnt a great deal of the best and worst of human nature. “It has been the most immensely worthwhile experience in my life.” (The Verdict of You All, Chapter 14.)
This is an interesting piece of history, but I am sure that many readers are asking what all this has to do with a mystery novel, and the answer is ‘everything’! Unaware of this history, I first read this book as a cute, rather superficial farce, which was taking a well earned jab at the conventions of our much beloved Golden Age classic mystery traditions. As such, it was a light read, and somewhat amusing, though an often slightly tedious work of mystery satire – saved only by Leo Bruce’s remarkable ability to produce four credible solutions to a fairly tough classic locked room plot. However, after encountering this history, I began to realize that Croft-Cooke was in reality presenting no gentle parody. The man truly despised all the aristocratic elitist nonsense of his contemporaries, and was making a very clear statement that he had much more faith in basic British common sense, than he did in a dying, decaying, imperial cultural that was overwhelmingly racist, poisoned by class prejudice, and corrupt to the very core.
‘A Case For Three Detectives’ was published in 1936, and followed by four more Sergeant Beef novels (with Beef becoming a PI in the third of the series), before Croft-Cooke joined the British Army in 1940, serving in the Intelligence Corps in the Madagascar campaign and later assigned to Queen Alexandra’s Own Regiment and the Gurkha Rifles until 1946. After this wartime service, Croft-Cooke returned to write another three books in this series, while simultaneously writing several other mainstream works, and working as a book reviewer for ‘The Sketch’.
The Sergeant Beef novels were only abandoned after Croft-Cooke’s time in prison, quite clearly demonstrating that, by this time, he had not only lost his faith in the aristocracy, but also in the common-sense of the regular police. They had proved to be false heroes and were symbolically murdered in ‘At Death’s Door’, the first of a new series of 23 novels, featuring Carolus Deene – an almost sexless figure and a gentleman schoolmaster of private means. This series provided Croft-Cooke with much needed income in exile, even if it meant finally adopting the Golden Age traditions of British mystery fiction, which he still despised. It was a fairly successful new beginning, which required no personal promotion, allowing him to gradually blend back into the wallpaper.
The Sergeant Beef introduced in ‘A Case for Three Detectives’ is a plain, simple, rather slow, British bobby with a droopy moustache – designed by Croft-Cooke to mock the eccentric great detectives of the Golden Age of British mystery fiction. It also has a fairly good classic locked room plot, in which he parodies, under altered names, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Father Brown, with all three “Great Detectives” vying to find the solution to a single murder. The novel is narrated by Townsend, a rather stuffy character who mocks Beef right until the end, when he finally comes up with the proper solution. Townsend would continue to mock Beef and chronicle his cases for the rest of this series, though none of the other Beef novels are as well known or as cleverly written as ‘A Case for Three Detectives’,
The basic story is quite simple. Townsend is a weekend guest at the home of the Thurston’s, when Mary Thurston, a happy, generous hostess, is brutally murdered inside her locked bedroom, accessible only by a single window far above the ground. Fortunately, Dr. Thurston, his lawyer, Williams, and Townsend are in the clear, as they were together in the sitting room when Mary Thurston’s screams rent the country night. They immediately rushed upstairs and broke down the doors within minutes, leaving no time for a burglar to climb up to another room, and the unmarked flowerbed below, equally assured that no one had rapidly descended. The other guests, including Strickland, a slick gambler who has a questionable relationship with Mary, and Norris, a disgruntled writer, had been alone in their rooms, but had arrived outside Mrs. Thurston’s door within seconds, leaving them no time to have exited by the window and then reappeared. The local vicar had a less ironclad alibi, and a puritanical streak currently focused on Mary, and was apparently still in the grounds at the time of the murder, but still could not have managed to get up or down to the window without being seen or leaving some trace.
The household staff, at first, seem to provide a better ground for finding a likely criminal. The butler, Stall, has clearly been up to something nasty, but not necessarily murder, while the chauffeur Fellowes, actually has a criminal record, as does the brother of his fiancé, Enid, the parlourmaid. However, it once again appears impossible that they could have entered by the window, or escaped in time to avoid detection. And Enid’s brother, Miles, had the perfect an alibi – a darts game with none other than Sgt. Beef!
The first detective to arrive at the scene of the crime is Lord Simon Plimsoll, a fairly good pastiche of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. He has an enormous book collection and a manservant named Butterfield, and is a quite an amiable character who clearly loves playing the murder mystery game.
The next to arrive is Monsieur Amer Picon, an eccentric foreign detective, and a quite excellent parody of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Picon is clearly the closest clone of the three, adopting the manners and grammar of Poirot, almost without a single flaw. He is, of course, incredibly vain and has a serious case of OCD.
The final detective is Monsignor Smith, a satire of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, who is always muddled and constantly making very odd statements which are supposed to give the reader some insight into human nature. This is probably the weakest of the three detectives, with the parody taken too far to really capture the essence of this classic cleric-detective.
With three great detectives on the case, it is only to be expected that this locked-room mystery will soon be solved. Still, it takes a couple of days, largely due to a plethora of extremely odd clues, but in the end they all arrive at a solution – the only problem being that each one is exclusively distinct and accuses a different pair of accomplices! We are gradually dragged through each of these three elaborate solutions, only to have each kicked out from beneath our feet, until the simple, uncouth, beer drinking, dart playing, Sergeant Beef, finally provides the true solution, which is actually backed up by real physical proof! It might be argued that this evidence is unfairly withheld from the other detectives, but as they have consistently refused to listen to his solution, formed within hours of the death, this is hardly Beef’s fault. Beef is clearly annoyed by this demeaning treatment, though he is finally awestruck by their incredible imaginations, which have built up such convincing erroneous theories.
This novel also clearly takes a swipe at your average mystery fan, by ruthlessly questioning, time and time again, the basic nature of any person who finds true joy in the murder game – a pastime which turns brutish violence into a parlour amusement – though this form of entertainment clearly fails to amuse the dour, cynical Norris, who is not a detective fiction fan:
“It has become a game, a mere game like chess, this writing of murder mysteries. While in real life, it is no game, but something quite simple and savage, with about as much mystery wrapped round it as that piano leg. And that’s why I’ve no use for detective fiction. It’s false. It depicts the impossible.” (page 12)
However, if we step back a pace and view this novel through the spectacles of a homosexual man who has long shown a clear disdain for the British aristocracy and the ‘Gentleman Detective’ – a man who has not so quietly been fighting against the growing repression of a new conservative social psychology – it suddenly appears far less innocent. This mystery occurs on the stage of a corrupt elite, and plays to a public who have largely turned against the liberal causes of a decade earlier, which the author holds so dear. Croft-Cooke may have later been forced to surrender and embrace a culture he couldn’t beat, but I am far from convinced that this was genuine. It seems more likely that by 1936, he already had formed a harsh impression of a world that was gradually growing darker, and had little sympathy left for those in charge, and only a limited belief in the power of the people. In this novel, he still appears to have retained some hope for a common-sense Beef style social solution, but Croft-Cooke was a cultured man, an artist who would not have put too much faith in the opinion of the masses, even if he did view them as inherently more fair and open to social diversity, than the tired ruling classes of the realm.
Here are a few points to consider while you read this book. While the chauffeur Fellowes, his girlfriend, Enid, and her brother, Miles, are constantly being portrayed as the ‘criminal class’, who are actually the ones not to be trusted? Mary Thurston is clearly being unfaithful to her husband in several ways, while Strickland is an obvious bad one, and even Norris, Townsend, and Williams are all constantly shown to be manipulative and rather unpleasant. The only good cheer in the entire story is from the servants, who are struggling to get ahead in a fairly honest manner, with the exception being the butler, who has for too long made a career out of acting the part of a subservient servant. It does not require any spoiler alert to simply note that the social order has been completely inverted, with the upper classes now the true criminals, as the direction of this novel is evident from the first few chapters. In fact, this is not even a good whodunnit, as the prejudices of all three detectives are quite obvious, and it is equally clear that all will be wrong, since there could be no other reason for such an overkill of amateur detective talent – and once these prejudices are observed and the class inversion duly noted, it does seriously limit the potential field of suspects!
Despite the humorous parodies, this is actually quite a dark novel that dwells on the real horror of a murder, turned into a parlour game, and it is only in the character of Beef himself, that stolid ‘everyman’ who patrols the village and knows his people – and how to follow the training given by the police force – that there is any optimistic vision of a better future. If the common man can beat the elite forces of Amer Picon, Lord Simon, and Monsignor Smith, there must still be some small hope for a better tomorrow! It must have felt like there was still time to turn things around in 1936! Croft-Cooke had lost faith in the old seats of power, but still nurtured a tentative trust in the power of the ordinary – ironically, just as Hitler rose to power on a populist tide in Germany! Unfortunately, as we have already noted, even this faint light at the end of the tunnel was soon extinguished, first by war, then by the brutal horrors of peace! Seen from this perspective, this is no simple satire of a much beloved genre – it is a devastating social critique of a corrupt and privileged class, on the verge of collapse, from the pen of a man with a vested interest in bringing down this overbearing, so often cruel, social structure. Perhaps nothing shows this more than the stark racism directed at people of ‘mixed blood’ and the blatant class prejudice found in each of the three detective’s solutions. This comes through on page after page, but one of the clearest is when Townsend considers the staff and decides:
“It seems to me almost too much of a coincidence that two men and a woman, all of them more or less sprung from the criminal classes, should have been on the spot, without having been involved. I could not see, of course, how they could have done it, for I could not yet see how anyone could have done it, but I felt that one or two, or all three of them, were guilty. And I do not deny that I was sorry. I should have liked to have felt that the story told by the girl was true. They had all had to fight for existence. I had caught some glimpses of that fight – the girl’s dreary struggle through the most sordid kind of domestic service at an age when she should have been in school. The years of malnutrition and overwork. And for the men the loneliness and nerve-strain of a life into which they had probably entered half from desperation, half from want.
But there was a hardness in Enid, that savagery in Fellowes, which seemed to prove them capable of any violent act, if violence served their turn. And though I still revolted at the thought of of either of them having actually used that knife so horribly, I no longer felt that they were innocent of some part of the crime.
I felt nauseated suddenly with the whole affair…”
Is this a gentle parody of a beloved genre? And what are we to do with comments like the following:
“I had heard of the treachery of these people of mixed blood, and looking at him I could believe what I had heard. His long, rather yellow hand, lying on the back of his sister’s chair, could have used that knife as it was used. And the almost feline agility of the man could, I felt, have overcome the inexplicable obstacles.”
There is definitely a very sharp edge lying just beneath this apparent piece of satirical fluff!
So how do we rate this very intriguing locked room mystery? Admittedly, I am not much of a fan of parodies, and cannot say that I found this very amusing. If it wasn’t for those four great alternative endings, which demonstrate such a fantastic wealth of imagination, I would probable be hard pressed to give it more than three stars, but imagination must be rewarded, so make it a light four star mystery. Of course, this one is truly subjective, more so than in a more serious mystery, where differing senses of humour are not at play. So, perhaps I am just a grumpy old man – and this is not my thing – but it is also quite clear that this is no five star masterpiece!
The Sargeant Beef series:
Case for Three Detectives (1936)
Case Without a Corpse (1937)
Case with Four Clowns (1939)
Case with No Conclusion (1939)
Case with Ropes and Rings (1940)
Case for Sergeant Beef (1947)
Neck and Neck (1951)
Cold Blood (1952)
Sergeant Beef also appeared in ten short stories, originally published in the Evening Standard in the early 1950s and reprinted in ‘Murder in Miniature: The Short Stories of Leo Bruce’, edited by Barry Pike.
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