Leo Bruce was a prolific writer whose career began in, but comfortably outlasted, the Golden Age. I've never got round to reading him, but I heard that his 1939 book Case with 4 Clowns was an interesting "whowasdunin" so I decided to give it a go. And I'm glad I did. It's almost a very fine book. Unfortunately,it falls short of excellence, because it's rather padded out. But there are some good ingredients, which make me want to read more of Bruce (whose real name was Rupert Croft-Cooke).
This is the fourth of the novels featuring Sergeant Beef, and is narrated by a detective novelist called Townsend. Much of the strength of the book derives from the comedy inherent in the relationship between Townsend and Beef. Townsend is insufferably smug, and constantly patronises the detective whose cases he chronicles. And at the start of the book we are told that Beef recently left the police because of a debacle in his last investigation. But he's a smart guy. All the way through, the reader roots for Beef and is pleased when Townsend gets his come-uppance.
Beef gets word from a relative who is involved with a circus travelling around Yorkshire that a gypsy fortune teller has predicted that a murder will take place in connection with the circus. But who will be the killer and who the victim? On this (rather slender, it must be said) basis, Beef and Townsend journey up North and join the people of the circus - who treat them with remarkable tolerance.
The story struck me as rather thin, although I rather admired the way that Bruce tried to compensate for this, and the finale (which explains the title - which had puzzled me) is very good. The story is really a variant on the idea of a "whowasdunin", and not a bad one, but too protracted, with too many characters whom I didn't find quite as fascinating as Bruce did. This sounds negative, but only because I'm frustrated that an evidently talented writer didn't fully realise the potential of the concept he came up with. Perhaps the problem was that it was a concept better suited to a short story or a novella than a full length novel.
I like Bruce in his later boook about Carolus Deene. His early ones with Sgt. Beef are sometimes a chore to read. This one I think is one of the weakest. I agree about the padding. I lost interest in it and I never finished it. I was reminded of another mystery with circus characters called THE AFFAIR OF THE CIRCUS QUEEN by Clifford Knight, perhaps the most boring mystery ever written.
I think I'd be disappointed if there weren't some comedy from a Sergeant Beef.
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