Two 1001 MIDNIGHTS Reviews
by Bill Pronzini

LEO BRUCE – Case for Three Detectives. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1936. Stokes, US, hardcover, 1937. Academy Chicago Press, paperback, 1980.

   Case for Three Detectives is at once a locked-room mystery worthy of John Dickson Carr and an affectionate spoof of the Golden Age detectives created by Sayers, Christie, and Chesterton.

   When Mary Thurston is found in her bedroom, dead of a slashed throat, during a weekend party at her Sussex country house, it seems to all concerned an impossible, almost supernatural crime: The bedroom door was double-bolted from the inside; there are no secret passages or other such claptrap; the only windows provide no means of entrance or exit; and the knife that did the job is found outside the house.

   The following morning, three of “those indefatigably brilliant private investigators who seem to be always handy when a murder has been committed” begin to arrive. The first is Lord Simon Plimsoll (Lord Peter Wimsey): “… the length of his chin, like most other things about him, was excessive,” the narrator, Townsend, observes.

   The second is the Frenchman Amer Picon (Hercule Poirot): “His physique was frail, and topped by a large egg-shaped head, a head so much and so often egg-shaped that I was surprised to find a nose and mouth in it at all, but half-expected its white surface to break and release a chick.” And the third is Monsignor Smith (Father Brown), “a small human pudding.”

   The three famous sleuths sniff around, unearth various clues, and arrive at separate (and elaborate) conclusions, each accusing a different member of the house party as Mary Thurston’s slayer. But of course none of them is right. The real solution is provided by Sergeant Beef of the local constabulary, “a big red-faced man of forty-eight or fifty, with a straggling ginger moustache, and a look of rather beery benevolence.”

   Along the way there is a good deal of gentle humor and some sharp observations on the methods of Wimsey, Poirot, and Father Brown. The prose is consistently above average, and the solution to the locked-room murder is both simple and satisfying.

   Sergeant Beef is featured in seven other novels by Leo Bruce (a pseudonym of novelist, playwright, poet, and scholar Rupert Croft-Cooke), most of which have been reissued here by Academy Chicago in trade paperback. Among them are Case Without a Corpse (1937), Case with Four Clowns (1939), and Case with Ropes and Rings (1940). Each is likewise ingeniously plotted and diverting.

LEO BRUCE – A Bone and a Hank of Hair. Peter Davies, UK, hardcover, 1961. British Book Centre, US, hardcover, 1961. Academy Chicago, US, paperback, 1985.

   Croft-Cooke abandoned Sergeant Beef in 1952 and three years later began a second notable series of detective novels, also published under the Leo Bruce by-line, this one featuring Carolus Deene, ex-commando and Senior History Master at Queen’s School, Newminster, who solves mysteries as a hobby. Until recently, when Academy Chicago began reprinting these, too, in trade paperback, most of the twenty-three Deene titles were available only in England.

    A Bone and a Hank of Hair involves Deene in the strange disappearance of Mrs. Rathbone, Mrs. Rathbone, and Mrs. Rathbone — or are all three the same woman in different guises? Deene’s investigation, prompted by relatives of the original Mrs. Rathbone, takes him to an unpleasant home in remote East Kent, some curious parts of London, and an art colony in Cornwall.

   The jacket blurb says, more or less accurately, “Everywhere he meets bizarre, sometimes richly comic, sometimes sinister characters who bring him at last to the (guaranteed unguessable) conclusion.” On hand as usual in this series, in minor roles, are Mrs. Stick, Deene’s housekeeper and conscience; and the Gorringers, Deene’s headmaster and his (half)witty wife.

   Deene and his investigative methods, and Bruce and his blend of sly humor, tricky plotting, and eccentric characters may not be for every taste. But in this and such other adventure as A Louse for the Hangman (1958),Jack on the Gallows Tree (1960), Nothing Like Blood (1962), and Death in Albert Park (1964), both perform admirably.

   Croft-Cooke also published several worthy criminous novels under his own name, including Seven Thunders (1955) and Paper Albatross (1968).

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.