Monday, June 23, 2014

Bringing Down the Hammer: Crack of Doom (1963), by Leo Bruce

....An ordinary, well-used very heavy hammer such as may be used for anything from breaking coal to driving in a stake.  Such a one I have kept by me for years.  No one knows I have it. It is small enough to carry with me unnoticeably and large enough to be effective....
                                                                  Crack of Doom (1963), by Leo Bruce

Rich Westwood of Past Offences suggested that crime fiction bloggers review a 1963 mystery this month.  Here is my choice: Leo Bruce's Crack of Doom.

In the 1950s and 1960s, one of the best English authors of the clued detective novel was "Leo Bruce," the pseudonym of prolific author Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903-1979).  

Rupert Croft-Cooke
Many of his Leo Bruce novels are in print today, Croft-Cooke's native Indian secretary and companion, Joseph Susei Mari, having inherited the copyrights to the Leo Bruce novels at the author's death and sold them to the publishing firm of Academy Chicago, which was absorbed by Chicago Review Press last year.

In the fall of this year, CRP will be reprinting the last Leo Bruce detective novel, Death of a Bovver Boy, which was originally published in 1974, five years before Bruce's death (Croft-Cooke suffered a debilitating stroke that year and afterwards was only able to complete one more work, his final volume of memoirs).

I have blogged about Croft-Cooke here and here, so will not go once again into a great deal of background on him, but I should note that there are two Leo Bruce novels series, one with the earthy British copper (later PI) Sergeant Beef (8 novels, published between 1936 and 1952, including the indisputable Bruce classic, Case for Three Detectives, 1936) and one with the history schoolmaster (Queen's School, Newminster) and amateur sleuth Carolus Deene (23 novels, published between 1955 and 1974).

The Beef books were conceived as satires on classical detective fiction, particularly the "gentleman sleuth" type (Beef is no gentleman), but they also simultaneously offer cleverly designed puzzles.  The Deene books are less overtly satirical (though the earlier ones especially have considerable humor), with Deene himself being a gentleman detective (private income, you see), but they also often have very good puzzles.  The Deene novels Furious Old Women (1960), A Bone and a Hank of Hair (1961) and Nothing Like Blood (1962) have especially clever plots, I think, but most of the books are quite good.

By and large the Deene mysteries are set in the same sort of provincial English milieu so often favored by Agatha Christie.  Bruce also is, like Christie, particularly adept at subtle clueing.  Personally I find him one of the English mystery writers who comes closest to Christie overall, including in sheer readability.

the English first edition
with the splendid dust jacket by Val Biro
Leo Bruce's Crack of Doom (retitled, for no compelling reason that I can see, Such is Death in the United States) inaugurated a period of lessened levity in the Deene books.  Its plot is rather grim.

The opening pages of the novel are taken from the diary of an aspiring murderer in the resort town of Selby-on-Sea. This person discloses therein that s/he is planning to commit, for the sheer thrill of it, the perfect murder: one that is without motive ("I shall simply kill the first person who comes along").

The body of the novel then commences, with a man being found dead in a shelter on the Selby-on-Sea promenade, his head battered by blows from a coal hammer, on a blustery night a few weeks before Christmas (yes, Crack of Doom is also a Christmas mystery, with events coming to a head on Christmas Day, which echoes the "Day of Judgment" idea invoked by the novel's title).

The dead man is Ernest Rafter, who, it turns out, had only recently returned to England. He had long been presumed dead, killed in Burma in the Second World War.  Investigation by the police reveals that during the war he had been a collaborator with the Japanese, and in this fact the police believe they may have found the motive for his murder.

Fearing suspicion is directed at her family--Rafter has two brothers and two sisters living in the vicinity of Selby-on-Sea--one of Rafter's sisters, a wealthy, pompous widow with a son at Queen's School in Newminster, persuades Carolus Deene to take on the case.

Bruce's regular cast of amusing supporting characters in Newminster is downplayed in Crack of Doom, but as is so often the case in the Deene books a public house plays a key role in the tale and there are two winning barmaids, Doris and Vivienne, to brighten things up a bit (when it comes to female characters, Bruce excelled at barmaids, stuffy matrons and plainspoken elderly women).

The novel offers a difficult murder problem, with some very good clues, that really tests the murder mettle of Deene and the reader (by the by, Queen's School splendid windbag headmaster Mr. Gorringer shows up for Deene's exposition at the end, as per tradition). The coal hammer as a macabre murder weapon has always stuck with me, rather like the sugar cutter in Agatha Christie's Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952).

I unhesitatingly recommended Crack of Doom to fans of classic English mystery.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for joining in my 1963 thing Curt. So far no duplicate books, which is good....

    I only know Bruce from the Sergeant Beef books, which I always recommend to people (so much so that I find I have precisely zero Sergeant Beef books on my bookshelves), but it's good to know there are more series to check out. And I'm glad you found one with a pub in it - I think you should begin a 'pubs in crime novels' list.

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    1. Can't wait to see how many books show up on the list!

      Love pubs in mysteries. Among Golden Age authors I think Leo Bruce and John Street are the great pub crawlers.

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    2. Don't forget Chesterton. Loads of pubs in his detective stories. The Flying Inn even revolves around a pub. What's Wrong With The World features a whole chapter on pubs. Carr may be a case to consider, too; the initial pub scene in The Hollow Man is memorable.

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    3. From my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery:

      "What John Street’s novels most typically offer is an engaging grounding in solidly English settings, especially the great institution of the British public house, which to Street, like to G. K. Chesterton and H. G. Wells, was a locus of all that was good in his native land."

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  2. I've been a Carolus Deene fan since Academy brought them out in paper and have tracked them all down over the years. I am happy to see a critic with your level of knowledge and appreciation say that he comes close to Christie in sheer readability and subtlety; I agree completely, and I'll add that it's a sad shame he wasn't better known. As well as the ideas you mention, I find great pleasure in his ability to depict people from various levels of society so economically, in little word sketches that sum them up and let you know their social level instantly, and his wonderful skill with clever dialogue. Carolus Deene talks like we all wish we could, I think! I agree with you that he was good at depicting a certain kind of stuffy matron -- like Mr. Gorringer LOL. And I agree with you that a good place to start is (other than at the beginning) with "Furious Old Women", which I think will interest the connoisseur immediately.

    "Bovver Boy"'s first paper edition, from Mews in the UK in 1976, is a delightful example of book misdesign; someone thought they were working on a different sort of novel entirely and misconstrued the whole "elderly schoolmaster and juvenile delinquent" plot line. Have a look and see if you don't agree.

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    1. Some people have complained about the Bruce mysteries (especially the Deenes) being so dialogue dependent, but the dialogue is so good I have no trouble with that. Croft-Cooke was not just a good clueer but a good writer, as you say,

      I have the hardcover first ed. and the guy on the cover looks like a vampire. Very Goth, or Punk. RCC made some attempt to keep up with the times in the later books in the series, but the cover is really discordant.

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  3. Well, I hope that CPR will soon publish the first three Carolus Deene books because I have been unable to locate second-hand copies of At Death’s Door, Dead for a Ducat or Death of a Cold, and several others in the series—namely Louse for the Hangman, Death on the Black Sands, Death on Romney Marsh and Death by the Lake—are almost impossible to find except, in a few cases, for extremely exorbitant prices.

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    1. Yes, I would like to work with Academy Chicago to get these reprinted, but they have never been very good about actually answering emails. Maybe it will be different now that they've been acquired by CRP.

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    2. CPR seems as reluctant to answer e-mails as Academy Chicago.
      Since posting my comment in June, I have managed to purchase (at great expense) copies of Death on Romney Marsh and Death by the Lake as well as (for a much more reasonable price) Death on the Black Sands.
      i have already posted the text of Death by the Lake at The Books of Leo Bruce and, I intend to post the texts of Romney Marsh and in December this year and January next year. (This month I’m posting A Bone and a Hank of Hair.

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    3. I have received a reply from CRP; publisher Cynthia Sherry wrote (inter alia) that, for the moment, she is not interested in granting me licence to publish limited editions: “Right now I am working on producing e-books and republishing and repackaging titles. We are trying to find an affordable, hardcopy of Death on Romney Marsh and Death on the Black Sands to use as production materials for reprints. As soon as we get copies we will republish them.”
      I offered to lend her my books.

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  4. noah-stewart: Not so much a case of some misconstruing the plot line, as someone deliberately misrepresenting the book in order to trick kids into buying it! In the early 70s there was a series of paperback books from NEL beginning with SKINHEAD by the house name "Richard Allen". Nasty, brutish and short, with loads and loads of casual violence, these were enormously popular amongst adolescent kids at the time. Even the cover is a deliberate attempt to mirror the photo covers of the SKINHEAD series. I wonder how long it took the average reader that they were targetting to realise that they had been thoroughly conned?

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  5. On pubs, the views expressed over the years by Sgt. Beef and Mr. Carolus Deene are not so far from those expressed by the author in his Darts (London, 1936); I have reproduced online Chapter 14 therefrom, “The Social Aspect”.

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  6. Yet another Bruce title I haven't read. I have half a dozen on the shelf, and have enjoyed every one, but it seems I'll need to seek out more.

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    1. I think he's great. A few clunkers later on, but usually quite enjoyable.

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