Friday, May 18, 2018

Beefing Up: Case with Ropes and Rings, by Leo Bruce (1940)

A few weeks ago I urged that Leo Bruce's series sleuth Sergeant Beef be classed as one of the Great Detectives.  All eight of his cases--too few of them were written--have true detection, often ingenious twists and, of course, the paired delights of plainspoken commoner Sergeant Beef and his priggish public schooled Watson, Lionel Townsend.

Wartime British hardcover edition, amusingly noting
that Beef--Sergeant Beef--has not been rationed
Leo Bruce, aka mainstream author Rupert Croft-Cooke [RCC], was one of the early Golden Age iconoclasts, a man who very much cocked a snook at class conventions in classic British mystery, subverting its sometime condescension and snobbery while staunchly adhering to its puzzle traditions. 

Bruce's sleuth hero was not some sophisticated gentleman detective of polished manners and posh mien who captured the hearts of his women readers (and some of the men), but rather a darts-playing, brew-swilling cop--not even an inspector, mind you--with poor grammar and an undignified draggling, beer-soaked ginger mustache.

A gay man who grew up in all-too-briefly prosperous circumstances in Edwardian England, RCC developed an ingrained skepticism of England's public school system and its entrenched elites with their inherited class privileges.  When RCC has Lionel Townsend primly declare, "I have always considered the public school system to be an integral part of the great tradition of English superiority to every other race and regime in the entire world," you can be certain there is more than a measure of sarcasm here.

RCC became interested in a different sort of British milieu from that commonly associated with classic British mystery: working class life, with its barmaids and mechanics, denizens of pubs and circuses and gypsies and foreigners from central and southern Europe and parts yet farther from English shores. (Gasp!)  This attitude led to the creation of Sergeant Beef when RCC as Leo Bruce began to write detective fiction in 1936.

In a class by itself is the first Beef mystery, Case for Three Detectives, a genre classic which pits lowly Sergeant Beef, a village policeman, against splendidly acute parodies of Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown, and sees Beef best all three.  And it's a locked room mystery too!

Case with Ropes and Rings (1940) is not in the same league, but it's an amusing story with a clever culmination to its murder plot.

In the novel Beef, having gone into business as a private detective, is called in to investigate the suspicious demise of a student in the gymnasium of Penshurst Boys School.  Young Lord Alan Foulkes, a senior at the school and the second son of the Marquess of Edenbridge, was found hanging from a beam in the gymnasium on the morning after he had won the school's heavyweight boxing championship. 

For Beef good cases like this one (as he deems it) have not been plentiful, to a great extent because "respectable" people, the type of people who rent detective fiction from lending libraries, don't want murders which personally impact them chronicled in a book (Yes, like all true Great Detectives, Sergeant Beef's "Watson" writes up Beef's investigations in novel form.)

As this Watson, Lionel Townsend, explains:

I had made several attempts to get [Beef] a job, but these had been frustrated by a number of circumstances.  In the first, a nice little murder up in Shropshire, the wife of the murdered man had explained tartly that even if she did employ an investigator, she would not have the killing of her husband with a meat chopper made the subject of a novel.  Another, a parson in Norfolk, who was having all sorts of trouble in his parish on account of a deluge of anonymous letters, had shaken his head sadly.  "The publicity, my dear Sir, the publicity!"

The perfect Watson?
E. M. Forster (with Bob Buckingham)
The Leo Bruce novels include a lot of this sort of meta-style japery.  An admirer tells Beef in Case with Ropes and Rings that what the sleuth really needs is a more literary chronicler than Townsend: has he thought about trying E. M. Forster or Aldous HuxleyA Passage to Murder, anyone?  How about Howard's End?  You wouldn't even have to change the title of that one to make it a mystery!

Townsend is doubtful about Beef's taking on this school case, given the tragic circumstances (the death by hanging, deemed by the police a suicide, of a teenage boy, and an aristocrat at that).  Beef naturally has little time for noble sentiment:

"Tragic circumstances...have never been sufficient to put off an investigator.  They love tragic circumstances, the whole lot of them.  Haven't you ever noticed in detective novels what a good time is had by everybody with a few tragic circumstances?"

Beef gives Townsend a right proper scare by suggesting, concerning the Beef mysteries Townsend has penned, that he, Beef, should have "a cut at the book rights," not to mention the "American rights, and the serial rights, if there are any, and the film rights, if your agents are ever clever enough to sell them."  The ex-cop suggests that actor Gordon Harker, then at the height of his Inspector Hornleigh radio and film fame, should play him on film. (In the films Hornleigh was a comical Cockney detective, so Beef--and his creator--may have been on to something here!)

Gordon Harker (right) as Insepctor Hornleigh
with his sidekick, played by Alastair Sim
The whole matter of money quite properly vexes and perplexes Sergeant Beef:

"I should very much like to know what the other investigators would advise...You never hardly find them discussing money.  How do you suppose Dr. Thorndyke and Amer Picon [Hercule Poirot] and them get on?  I know Lord Simon Plimsoll [Lord Peter Wimsey] has a private income.  Do you suppose the rest of them do it for love?"

Beef thinks this public school hanging case is a bit of all right, however:

"It's just what we need, lords and Old Schools and all that....People like to read about those with money and the goings on of the aristocracy."

Yet one of the schoolboys involved in the case is an Indian classmate of the dead boy Foulkes--though admittedly he is "the son of a fabulously rich merchant"--and for once in vintage British mystery a darker complected member of the Empire is presented without any trace of condescension from a native English author.  Indeed, the "extremely handsome young Indian," one Barricharan, happily fits right in with the native English crowd, and he is surprised at Beef's suggestion that it might be otherwise:

"Do you like being in the school?" asked Beef suddenly. 
"Very much."
"You never feel sort...out of place, in any way?"
"Out of place?" repeated Barricharhan, quite honestly perplexed.
"I mean, by being a different color, and that?"
"Good lord, no.  They're a good crowd here."

Just a few years later, incidentally, RCC, while serving in the Army in India, would meet a handsome young Indian who would become, for the next 35 years, his companion and secretary.  (By the end of RCC's life in 1979 this formerly young Indian, now 52, had become a confirmed cricket fan and Tory voter.)

When a second murder of a young boxer takes place, this time in seedier environs in London (prompting Townsend to wonder whether a serial killer of boxers is at work), a new set of characters is introduced: expatriate Spanish Republicans (the late Spanish Civil war having recently ended, to the dismay of much of the liberal world, in favor of the Nationalist faction led by Francisco Franco.) 

Although RCC, like George Orwell, became skeptical of both the Left and the Right in the war, he presents without caricature these people, who as leftists and "dagos" would have been mocked in much of British crime fiction of the day. In Case with Ropes and Rings RCC provides a topical, if all too brief, look at an important aspect of the international political scene, and he integrates it into the mystery plot as well.

But perhaps most mystery readers of the day simply weren't that interested in this sort of thing.  Case with Ropes and Rings was not published in the US, unlike the earlier Bruce books, and at several points in the novel RCC tellingly has Townsend grumble about his disappointing book sales with the Beef mysteries: "I approached to help [Beef], and as I did so he dropped [the mat] back into place, covering with dust the new blue serge suit which I had purchased out of the meagre proceeds of Case with Four Clowns."

Young Barricharan, we learn, is the only person to have borrowed Case with Four Clowns, the immediately previous Leo Bruce detective novel, from the school library.  For his part Sergeant Beef  deflatingly explains that he simply had assumed Townsend's books "don't sell enough to get down here."

Looking serious: Rupert Croft-Cooke
By 1940 RCC was well aware that is was the women known as the "Crime Queens" who were making the real killing out of British crime fiction, as we see in this passage where Townsend is mocked by an obnoxiously precocious schoolboy, obviously the model for Rupert Priggley in Bruce's later Carolus Deene mystery series.  (Carolus Deene was a gentleman amateur detective--if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!):

God, how that sort of thing bores me!  All these fearful women writers and people like you, working out dreary crimes for half-wits to read about.  Doesn't it strike you as degrading?

I decided to keep my temper.

"One can scarcely expect schoolboys to appreciate the subtlety and depths of modem detective fiction," I said.  "I have only to quote the name of Miss Sayers to remind you of what this genre has already produced."

It wasn't the first time--and it certainly would not be the last--that the weighty name of Dorothy L. Sayers was invoked to defend the intellectual and artistic credibility of the detective novel.  But in this case you may be justified in suspecting that the invocation was done with mock solemnity, and with laughing gas, not incense, wafting through the air.

RCC derides the love interest in the detective novel of manners associated with the Crime Queens Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham by having Townsend again amorously pursue a lovely young woman, again with utter futility.  "This isn't a love story," Beef chides the crestfallen Townsend, thwarted in love yet again.  "It's a detective novel.  I never like to see the two mixed up.  None of the best of 'em ever did it.  We'll stick to crime."

Yet although he's the clueless straight man in the Sergeant Beef mysteries, Townsend does get the funniest lines in the book (wittingly or not), particularly on the next to last page, where he concludes with the outraged exclamation, "The man must be an absolute cad!"  I wish I could quote the rest, but--spoiler, don't you know.

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