Case Without a Corpse by Leo Bruce (Rupert Croft-Cooke 1903 – 1979) was published in 1937 and is the second of Bruce’s Sergeant Beef mysteries. I cannot imagine any of his other stories to be on the level of the first Beef mystery, Case for Three Detectives, but readers who somehow expected the same seem to be a bit disappointed in this second offering. In my opinion, once you get used to how Bruce is writing these stories – with the poking fun at the whole detective novel industry – you can settle in and simply enjoy the read.
Overall, this novel was an entertaining read this week that did not strain my eyes or annoy me in some other way. The characters are not very subtle, but they are a relatively fun group to trek around the countryside with. The story is told from the perspective of Townsend who also chronicled the first Beef mystery. Townsend is a novelist and he hangs about Beef’s location in Braxham in the hopes of getting fodder for his next detective novel. Beef is a fun character; the foil of all the very obnoxious detectives that most of the famous novels give us.
This is, first and foremost, a comedy. A tongue-in-cheek amusement that actually has a decent murder-mystery storyline as its frame. The humor is redundant and the plot is not a speeding bullet train. However, it is entertaining and it all turns out right in the end. So, one of the main targets for the humor is the amateur who tags along with the detectives and inserts himself into the investigation. In this case it is Townsend who is extremely up-front and honest about the fact that he has no business meddling, but is going to anyway.
There was, of course, no reason why I should be admitted, but my reading of detective novels, which had been considerable, had taught me that an outsider, with no particular excuse, was often welcomed on these occasions, especially if he had the gift of native fatuity, and could ask ludicrous questions at the right moment, so I hoped for the best. . . . That, I thought, is one good thing that writers of detective novels have done – taught Scotland Yard to admit miscellaneous strangers to their most secret conclaves. – pg. 62, chapter 8
So, authors who include this random character in order to make the whole story work, using the character as a lever or wedge when necessary, are being mocked here. And it is funny. Its a dry humor, of course, but it is also a breath of fresh air.
This novel pits the simple, plodding honesty of Sgt. Beef against the modern methods of the professional Scotland Yard Inspector named Stute. Stute is strict and is constantly demanding facts and efficiency. His interviews of subjects are clip, direct, and sharp. He will inevitably interrupt the witness to demand that they tell him the precise time or moment. Method, facts….these are his tools.
Beef and his constable Galsworthy often take the brunt of Stute’s elitist prejudices and frustrations. Galsworthy and Beef are outrageously saintly in their good-natured and long-suffering patience. The poking at Galsworthy’s name is repetitive, but several times had me snort. Stute has a need for Townsend’s presence, of course, but he does not spare him, either.
“But how can you spare the time to follow us round? Don’t you ever do anything?”
“I write detective novels,” I admitted.
Stute made a curious and I thought rather hostile sound with his lips. – pg. 165, chapter 20
It is absurd, and Bruce is correct to point out this absurdity in novels. Townsend ends up spending weeks in Braxham following this case. Every day paying, presumably, for his lodging, his meals, and endless pints at every pub they pass. Most of the time I am amazed at how wealthy these hangers-on must be in order to just lodge and eat and drink.
While Stute tends to be pointed and sharp with his comments, Beef tends to leave everyone wondering if his comments are genuine or if he is being tongue-in-cheek. I think that is the most amusing part of the character and, of course, when Beef solves the mystery, we suspect he may have been toying with us all along. But I turned the pages from 217 to 218 and laughed out loud:
Beef shook his head.
“Its all these modern methods wot confuses those chaps,” he said sadly, “Vucetich System, and Psy. . . sy. . . “
“That’s it–Sickology. And tracing this, that, and the other. And analysis and wot not. I go on wot I been taught.” pg. 218, chapter 26
Yep. “Sickology” had me laughing and currently has me with a rueful smile on my face.
The nice thing about the novel is that it is not all just parody and absurdity. There actually is a rather interesting case – it starts off suddenly in the early chapters and it becomes even more fraught as the storyline continues. And yes, it is literally a case without a corpse, in a sense. And it all hinges on perspective, which is a truly witty and clever thing for Bruce to have done to the reader. The perspectives of Beef and Stute and a little misdirection.
Recommended for summer vacations and vintage mystery fans.
P.S. My copy of this novel was ⚓ Heather M. Schroeder’s (nee Anderson) (1937- 2017) copy. Schroeder was a Royal Canadian Navy commissioned Officer who also enjoyed mystery novels. She was married to Colonel John K. Schroeder, Jr. (1929 – 2021) who was a highly decorated USAF officer. Unfortunately, it remains unknown to me how many “stars” she gave Case Without A Corpse.