The working-class town of Gunnarshaw, a town on the edge of the part of England known as the Yorkshire Dales, really had only one true criminal investigator in its police force - CID Sergeant Caleb Cluff. He was a good investigator, but with plenty of rough edges. His immediate supervisor, Inspector Mole, didn't like him at all. But Sergeant Cluff knew his town and knew the townspeople (and they knew and respected him), and he knew what made sense and what didn't seem to make sense when it came down to a murder investigation. So when a young assistant in the local chemist's shop - pharmacist, to those of us on the American side of the pond - is discovered lying on the cobblestones of a Gunnarshaw street, Sergeant Cluff has to rely on his own methods of reaching the truth about the case, truth that would upset some of the town's rigid assumptions about its social conventions. The story is told in The Methods of Sergeant Cluff, a 1961 cross between a police procedural and a traditional puzzle mystery by Gil North. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
Gil North, the pen name of author Geoffrey Horne, is another of those writers being rediscovered and republished by the British Library Crime Classics series. The books are published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press, which made a copy available to me for this review. Gil North wrote eleven books about Sergeant Cluff, a policeman of a type that should be familiar to modern readers: the troubled policeman misunderstood and/or hampered by his superiors. Caleb Cluff has an overbearing superior officer, Inspector Mole, who finds Cluff infuriating because he refuses to stick to the normal rules for investigating crime. To Inspector Mole, if the facts point to an obvious solution to a crime, that should be the end of it. Sergeant Cluff, as the title of the book implies, has his own methods, and - fortunately for him -the backing of his superintendent, and, frankly, he doesn't care what Mole thinks of him or of his methods:
"The facts were clear. He didn’t believe in facts, not when interpretation of the facts involved men and women he’d grown up with. Facts didn’t lie to Mole. Cluff closed his eyes to shut out the facts. He wanted to throw away what he knew already and begin again…More than facts was in question here, the intangible, invisible passions of human beings…It wasn’t facts that mattered but what lay behind the facts."
The apparent facts in the case seem to point directly to one suspect. Mole wants to arrest that person. Cluff refuses, because – knowing the people of his town as he does – he thinks there is a much more likely candidate for the role of first murderer. We will see how Cluff goes about gathering the evidence – and how he uses and manipulates that evidence to solve the case.
While it's not particularly hard-boiled, this is no fireside cozy. The town of Gunnershaw – based on the real Yorkshire town of Shipton – was very much a working class place. There are rough edges on almost all the characters. Frankly, there are very few who are likely to strike the reader as deserving of much sympathy. The writing style can be difficult – there are too many places where readers are likely to have trouble figuring out who is speaking to whom, and where, and when. And the book ends in additional violence that will prove Sergeant Cluff right in his methods while adding some considerable ambiguity to the final resolution of the plot.This new edition includes an introduction by mystery author and historian Martin Edwards. If you like something a bit darker than the normal traditional mystery, by all means try The Methods of Sergeant Cluff.