Although Croft-Cooke, an extremely prolific mainstream writer, thought his detective fiction inconsequential (he wanted to be remembered as a "serious" novelist and memoirist), today what there is of his work that remains in print is detective fiction; and it is well-regarded.
Croft-Cooke published 31 detective novels between 1936 and 1974, making him one of the more prolific quality writers of classical English mystery. These books divide into two series: the eight Sergeant Beef mysteries (1936-1952) and the twenty-three Carolus Deene mysteries (1955-1974).
Sergeant Beef was a plain, droopily-mustached British copper, designed deliberately by Croft-Cooke to mock the eccentric Great Detectives of Golden Age British mystery fiction.
The first Sergeant Beef novel, Case with Three Detectives (1936), is a genre tour de force: a locked room mystery in which appear, under altered names, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown.* In succession the three Great Detectives offer brilliant solutions to the murder--but they all turn out to be wrong! It is left to Sergeant Beef to actually solve the case.
(my personal favorite of these three satirical portraits is Father Brown; Croft-Cooke had known G. K. Chesterton, who died the year Case for Three Detectives was published, having written for a time for Chesterton's G. K.'s Weekly).
Croft-Cooke would publish seven more Sergeant Beef detective novels (in the third novel, Beef sets up in private practice as a detective). None of these sequels attains quite the exalted heights of Case for Three Detectives, but they all are clever and witty fair play mysteries. Beef and his chronicler Watson, a priggish gent named Townshend (who is always denigrating the subject of his chronicles), are a delightfully humorous duo.
The last Sergeant Beef novel appeared in 1952. The next year, the fifty-year-old Croft-Cooke was arrested for assault and "gross indecency," based on claims that he had committed homosexual acts upon two strapping twenty-year-old British sailors who spent the weekend at the Ticehurst, Sussex home of Croft-Cooke and his Indian companion and secretary, Joseph Susei Mari. The twenty-five-year-old Joseph (as he is always called in Croft-Cooke's memoirs), a slight man under 5'4" in height, was arrested on the same charges as well.
|David Maxwell Fyfe|
scourge of English homosexuals
in the 1950s (and flamboyant dresser)
Caught up in this net of persecution, Croft-Cooke was sentenced to nine months in prison and actually served six months. When he and Joseph, who had been separately tried and sentenced to three months in prison, were released from state custody in 1954, they understandably resolved to leave England.
The two men would make a home in Tangier for the next fourteen years, eventually returning in the early 1970s to an England in the throes of sexual revolution. Croft-Cooke dwelt in England, doing little writing after a severe stroke in 1974, until his death in 1979, at the age of seventy-six.
Croft-Cooke's first mystery written after his arrest and incarceration in 1953-1954 was At Death's Door (1955), the first Carolus Deene mystery. A Sergeant Beef novel was never published after 1952.
Part of the reason for the dearth of Beef on Croft-Cooke's literary table after 1952 surely can be found in the motto, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
Croft-Cooke, who had a longstanding disdain for aristocratic privilege (though he didn't like the Communists either), had fought the good fight--so to speak--against the gentleman detective tradition in British classical mystery, but by the mid-1950s, those sorts of detectives largely stood for what was left of classical English mystery (Agatha Christie of course stood in a class by herself). Fans of classical English mystery in the 1950s on the whole preferred reading about the oh-so gentlemanly Roderick Alleyn, Albert Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey.
|one of Leo Bruce's|
Carolus Deene mysteries,
reprinted in 2003
*(though in contrast with Alleyn, Campion and Wimsey Deene is a sexless detective as well; his young wife, we learn, died early in their marriage and throughout most of the series there is never any suggestion of amorous attachments--heterosexual or otherwise--on his part).
But, beyond this practical economic reason for changing detectives, I believe that in 1955 Croft-Cooke, who despised the English police system after his arrest and incarceration, could not abide having a policeman as his hero after the events of 1953-1954. Rather tellingly, I think, Croft-Cooke in At Death's Door made one of the novel's murder victims a policeman.
Sergeant Beef also appeared in ten short stories, originally published in the Evening Standard in the early 1950s and reprinted twenty years ago in Murder in Miniature: The Short Stories of Leo Bruce (edited by Barry Pike), a book that is still in print today.
Yet after the early 1950s, the Leo Bruce fans who fancied Beef had to make do with nary a scrap of the stuff--or so we've been told.
|Wait! there's more|
The story is called "Beef for Christmas," and it offers a classic Christmas house party murder at the country home of a profligate millionaire despised, naturally, by all his family. It's precisely dated in 1957, making it the last Beef-Townshend mystery adventure. Oh, yes! Townshend is in this one, happily just as wonderfully obtuse a twit as ever.
Beef for Christmas has a clever, fairly-clued murder and a "situation" that is substantial enough in short form that one can see how it could have been expanded into a full novel. It would grace any anthology of British detective stories. Those who have the power to make this happen should make it happen (if anyone does, please at least mention my name!). In the little world of the Leo Bruce fan, this is like discovering an original Holmes-Watson tale!
Additionally, in my researches at the Ransom Center at UT-Austin I found three Beef stories in typescript that apparently were never published but obviously were intended to be part of the Evening Standard series.
The best of these tales is a neatly worked-out account of the murder of a prosperous "village Lear" with three daughters, three sons-in-law and an unmarried niece who keeps house for him. So which of them fatally bashed the old gentleman on his head?!
This ingenious little story also has Detective-Inspector Thackekray, who was a constable under Sergeant Beef, way back when Beef was still on the Force. In Murder in Miniature, Thackeray appears in the similarly excellent Beef tales "Blunt Instrument" and "I, Said the Sparrow."
Another of these Sergeant Beef stories is pretty good as well (it also has Thackeray), but Bruce rewrote it as a Sergeant Grebe story (republished in Murder in Miniature") called "A Case for the Files" (aside from the change of detectives it's almost identical). The third story, about the bludgeoning murder of a well-off old lady, seemingly by her wastrel nephew, is fairish.
|Grebe can always spot a red herring|
Speaking of Sergeant Grebe, I also found at Ransom three Sergeant Grebe short stories (for the curious, a grebe is a freshwater diving bird). Eight Sergeant Grebe stories were previously collected by Barry Pike in Murder in Miniature.
The best of the three newly-found tales is, I think, the one involving the supposed bungalow gas oven suicide of a married woman who had been carrying on a dalliance. Was she really murdered? If so, was it the husband or the boyfriend who did the dark deed?
This is more a twist story than a fair play mystery (as is another of the Grebe stories, yet another one about a wife found dead in her home), but it's enjoyable. There's also one about circus lions--circuses and circus life were a specialty of Croft-Cooke's--that has a good situation, but an underwhelming resolution, I thought.
So we now know that there are actually fourteen Sergeant Beef stories (though one of these was rewritten as a Grebe) and eleven Sergeant Grebes. And one of the Beefs, "Beef for Christmas," clearly is Leo Bruce's single most substantive short story. Wouldn't it be wonderful if these lost Leo Bruce tales could be included in an updated Murder in Miniature? It's time for a nice bit of Beef, with a side of Grebe.
Note: Murder in Miniature is reviewed at The Broken Bullhorn.