Most of the mysteries we talk about here are whodunits - a term that I'm certain we could all define quite easily. And if the question is not "whodunit," it usually becomes "howdunit" or "whydunit." But there are very few mysteries - at least to my knowledge - that fall into a very different category, one that I guess would be called a "whowasitdoneto" mystery. To put it a bit more succinctly, as Leo Bruce's Sergeant Beef puts it:
"I don't know," he said. "I always supposed a murder case started with a corpse, and then you had to find out 'oo done it. This time, we know oo's done it, but we can't find the corpse. Wot d'you say to that?"
That's a nice, clear statement of the central problem addressed in Case Without a Corpse, a 1937 Golden Age classic by Leo Bruce, featuring the stolid and unflappable Sergeant Beef. The book is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
In Case Without a Corpse, Sergeant Beef, a village policeman fond of his pint of bitter and a game of darts, is relaxing in his favorite pub one evening when he is interrupted by a young man who runs into the pub. The young man finds Sergeant Beef about to throw his darts.
“Sergeant.” This time the voice was loud and insistent. “I’ve come to give myself up. I’ve committed a murder.”
But before Sergeant Beef can do much more than turn to face the young man who is speaking to him, the man takes a small bottle out of his pocket and swallows the liquid inside. And he dies, of cyanide poisoning.
And – as Sergeant Beef has noticed and, I presume, you have as well – the young man confessed to a murder…but neglected to say whom he had killed.
And, with no dead bodies anywhere in the vicinity, and with apparently nobody missing or wounded or otherwise hurt, that was going to prove quite a difficult problem for Sergeant Beef to solve. A detective from Scotland Yard, Inspector Stute, would take over the case, having all sorts of brilliant ideas, and rather contemptuous of Sergeant Beef. That attitude, I fear would be a mistake...
Leo Bruce was the pen-name of Rupert Croft-Cooke. Under that name, he wrote two series of mysteries, beginning with his Sergeant Beef books and, later, writing about Carolus Deane, a former commando who turned schoolteacher. Case Without a Corpse was his second book about Sergeant Beef. While the sergeant may seem to his superiors to be an unimaginative and slow, even plodding, policeman, he is actually quite smart and often reaches the correct solution to a problem before those same superiors can do so. Consider this tribute to Sergeant Beef from a writer of detective stories named Townsend, our narrator in the book:
“The Sergeant, for me, represented most that was worth while in the English character. He appeared almost a fool, he was slow and independent, he was quite fearless, and his imagination was of the kind which did not appear till he took an important step. He loved a game and a glass, and he had the awed interest that Englishmen often have in the slick and sinister cleverness of the outwardly brilliant. And he always got there in the end.”
I think that gives you an idea of the strengths of Bruce’s characters in general and Sergeant Beef in particular. I invite you to make the sergeant’s acquaintance. Case Without a Corpse is available both in print and as an ebook from Academy Chicago press.