Reflections on parody in detective fiction – Case for Three Detectives: Leo Bruce (1936)

Well this has been a long time coming! This little gem has been burning a hole on my bookshelf since I found this gorgeous, beaten up penguin edition in a second hand bookshop at the beginning of the year.

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In the most recent episodes of our locked room mysteries podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles, myself and fellow blogger JJ discussed our top 15 locked room novels and Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives this was on JJ’s list. That inspired me to finally get to it and I’ll tell you now that I was not let down one bit. The story:

After a night of hearty food, drink and rather preeminent discussions about committing and solving murder, the ever genteel, and ever rich Mary Thurston leaves her house guests to go to bed. A short times passes and screams are heard coming from her bedroom. Everyone in the house darts to her door from different angles. It is double locked on the inside with two sliding bolts, and once a panel of wood is smashed through the bolts are slid back (by a reliable person I may add) and the crowd rush in. They find a hideous sight of deep, blood soaked pillows and bed sheets, Mary lies with her throat slit. One of the crowd runs to the only other opening in the room, the window, and slides it open. No one to be seen. There are no footprints in the flower bead beneath, the other windows are too far away to climb to, and there was no way that anyone could have got out in time without being witnessed by the others.

In all aspects then, an absolutely classic locked room set up, and this is the point. For the book from here on will be a wonderful comedic parody and critique of classic detective story set ups, their characters and their mechanics.

The theme of parody begins the next day when three investigators, seemingly from nowhere, have appeared in the house. Each of these characters is a larger than life version of a famous fictional detective. Characters that would have been hugely popular and known at the time, even as they are now.

First we meet Lord Simon Plimsol, a parody of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. He is stiflingly and hilariously upper class, groaning at beer, sickened by bad decor and having never heard of a strange game called ‘darts’. Secondly we meet the inimitable Monsieur Amer Pecon, which you probably already guessed from the name is our parody of Hercule Poirot, created by Agatha Christie. Amer Picon is an absolutely wonderful name for this character as Amer Picon is the name of a sweet french aperitif, which in many ways sums up Poirot 100%. Picon is uncontrollably french, and wipes off and organises dust at every possible opportunity. Finally we meet Monsignor Smith, a little catholic priest of seemingly no significance. Smith is of course our Father Brown, G.K.Chesterton’s marvellous series creation, and the parody here is wonderful. Smith speaks only in verbose parables and idioms which at times are totally unfathomable. Each sentence is an opportunity for reflection upon humanity and spirituality, and most of the time he seems totally uninterested or is simply asleep during proceedings.

And then of course we have our um… hero, of sorts, the plodding, East Londoner Sergeant Beef. Bain of the local police force, avid darts player and beer drinker, friend to all, but seemingly dunderheaded when it comes to the art of detection.

Once we have met our investigators things start to get very interesting in terms of form. You are aware that with these three famous detectives on the case that you are going to get three different solutions from them. But of course, you are also aware, with the format of the story, and with the presence of Beef from the off, that they are going to be ultimately wrong. Beef says from the first few pages of his appearance that he has already worked it out, but being non charismatic and of the group of simpletons known as the police force, he is constantly told to be quiet or pushed aside.

The fact then that you know that these three detectives are going to be wrong, but not knowing quite how much or why, gives you a very unique, and ‘meta’ reading experience. Instead of trying to keep up in the race with them to the solution, you are instead in a place of critique, trying to see what is incorrect about their deductions rather than what might be leading to the truth. Knowing the end before you start, but not knowing it’s shape puts you in this strange premonitory relationship in regards to the characters. And of course, even though Sergeant Beef keeps getting cut off, when he does get a word in edge ways, it is pregnant with even more significance. But exactly how much people are wrong, and in what way leaves you second guessing yourself.

At the same time, we are aware that we are actually going to get three different solutions from these eccentric investigators, so we are also trying to work out what on earth will be their perspective. And their perspectives in the end are not some weak or comedic piece of detection, but each solution is strong, believable and high quality, and then comes Beef to blow them all away. What is amazing about this is that Bruce had to come up with four different solutions to a locked room problem in one novel, with multiple murderers, motives and clues, all of which were believable and credible. No small task.

But the intelligence of this book doesn’t end here. Not only are the characters parodied, but their detection styles also. Lord Plimsol focuses on details gained through conversation and amiability, Picon looks at ‘matters of the heart’ in his search for truth, and Monsignor Smith ties up his case looking at the spiritual and moral angle.

Bruce then takes this a step further by giving the three detectives solutions that as well as being totally credible and succinct, are parodies of the types of solutions their authors would give them. What really impressed me thinking about the plot at the book’s climax was that Bruce also builds parody into the way that the other characters react to these detectives. Lord Plimsol is deeply admired and respected at all times, Picon draws out everyones emotional secrets and they all confide in him, Smith is ignored and seen as of little consequence until things start to get supernatural. And Beef is seen as the blithering policeman, a classic trope of detective fiction. And Bruce even takes this a step further, in that these parodied responses from the cast are not just a simple send up of the author he is referencing, but they are also pieces of genuine clueing.

How the whole piece rounds up, particularly with Beef’s solution and how he responds to the three other theories is marvellously charming.

My criticisms? When the only strong female character is killed it leaves a super male heavy cast, some of which do blur together because they are so similar. This is frustrating as Bruce was obviously a brilliant writer and creator of character so he could have done a lot more with broadening his cast. But maybe this is parody too? I would also have liked to have seen more of Monsignor Smith. Of course his quiet presence is meant to reflect Father Brown’s, but he is often left a bit till last.

All in all a winner, and I can’t wait to get to the rest of Bruce’s oeuvre.

22 thoughts on “Reflections on parody in detective fiction – Case for Three Detectives: Leo Bruce (1936)”

  1. So pleased you enjoyed this novel. It was my first experience of Bruce as well and I loved it. I look forward to seeing what you make of Bruce’s later Beef mysteries – Townsend and Beef’s working relationship certainly diverts from the conventional. Townsend can never be said to be guilty of idolising the detective. I agree with you on the Father Brown parody, it is a bit too much in the background. I definitely felt it was the weakest of the three

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    1. Thanks Kate, yes I have heard mixed things, but I have almost all of the Beef books so going to make my way through them slowly for sure. Seems like everyone has differing opinions of the work after this.

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  2. Thanks for the review, Dan. 😊 It’s encouraging to hear that this is a great mystery, but I gather that Bruce only produced another novel of similar quality and ilk: Case for Sergeant Beef. And so I shall have to save these two titles for the last, and read the other, lesser, Bruce novels first. To date I’ve only read Cold Blood, which I thought was good.

    I recall you mentioning in your podcast that you’ve held back from Case of Three Detectives due to relative unfamiliarity with Sayers’s and Chesterton’s writing. Would you say some degree of familiarity with Sayers and Chesterton is crucial, even, necessary, for enjoying Case of Three Detectives? I haven’t read much Sayers (only Nine Tailors), and I haven’t read any Chesterton.

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    1. No problem JFW. From what I am hearing from others there is certainly mixed opinion on the rest. JJ agrees with you that Case For Sergeant Beef is the other great story, but the rest fall down a little. Tom Cat has a nice series of reviews of all the Beef stories, and that got me excited for Case With Ropes and Rings and Case without a Corpse. Those write ups are worth a look.

      As far as reading Sayers and Chesterton in advance: I have also only read The Nine Taylors, and one book with Wimsey in is enough to get the satire I’m sure! But with Chesterton yes pre-reading is essential for getting the breadth of the parody here. I think you would like Father Brown, and I can’t recommend him highly enough.

      The first collection The Innocence of Father Brown contains some of my top 10 locked room mystery stories (in short form), The Secret Garden being my favourite. My recommendation would be to start with ‘The Innocence’ and read the first 4 stories, and if your not a Chesterton fan by that point then at least you would have read enough to get started with Case For Three Detectives. Then you can do as I did which is skip to all the locked room’s of Chesterton later on. You can find the complete works actually pretty cheap online, well worth it.

      In saying these things I think the more you read of the three authors the more the parody will resonate, as with Amir Picon character there was definite reference to Poirot cases that I got because I had read the books. This may have been happening with the Wimsey parody but I didn’t realise it having not read more. But worse comes to worse, I can revisit this in a few years time and enjoy it even more having read more!

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      1. Thanks for the helpful input as to what background I might need to make the most of reading Case for Three Detectives. I’m confident that I have sufficient familiarity with Christie and Poirot, and I’m relieved that I don’t need more Sayers and Wimsey on top of Nine Tailors. I might pick up Murder Must Advertise, but it has a much larger page count than I generally have patience for. 😵

        Thanks for recommending Father Brown to me. I haven’t had any exposure to Chesterton, but my local library has the complete short stories. So I shall get round to reading some of them before tackling Case for Three Detectives. 😊

        As for Bruce’s novels, I’ve some non-Beef novels awaiting to be read on Kindle, including Furious Old Women. But I also have Case with No Conclusion and Case with Ropes and Rings to get through before Case for Three Detectives and Case for Sergeant Beef. 🤓

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      2. No problem. I haven’t got to Carolus Deene novel at all, but I’m not hearing great things. Though I expect, Bruce being as good as he was, that they will all have some point of merit.

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      1. Bah, don’t worry about it. I’ve bought more books than I’ve read this year, so I’m never going to finish my TBR — forget about a TBRR! Just sprinkle a few in here and there, you’ve still got a good many years ahead of you and will get through them before you know it. And then what will you read, eh?

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  3. Glad you liked it, Dan! One of my personal favorites and have you noticed how the false solutions tend to reflect the plotting-style of the mystery writers Bruce was lampooning. I think Amer Picon’s solution was a particular well-done parody of Christie.

    There’s a line by Sgt. Beef that has never stopped haunting me. Every time an amateur detective is being deliberately difficult and uttering cryptic remarks, I hear Sgt. Beef in my head saying, “with their stepsons, and their bells, and their where-did-the-screams-come-from. Why, they try to make it complicated.” What a shame he abandoned Sgt. Beef for Carolus Deene.

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    1. Such a great book. Yes the false solutions are so good and I think they will only grow more clever the more I read of those authors he was parodying.

      And that line from Beef is amazing. I also think how that line played into his solution and the whole resolution of the book is wonderful.

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  4. This was the third or fourth locked room book I read, which may have impacted my enjoyment of it. I was aware of which detectives were being parodied, but I lacked familiarity with the characters with the exception of Father Brown. As such, I’m sure I missed out on the nuances to some of it, such as why certain solutions may have fit the investigator/author’s style. It would have been hilarious if the Father Brown character had offered a “The Invisible Man”-style solution.

    I did enjoy the book quite a bit, yet I was somewhat let down by the three false solutions. It’s been a while since I read it, but I seem to recall that they were somewhat variations of a similar form. It would have also been better if the windows had been locked from the inside to create more of an impossibility.

    With that said, I loved the solution and the shock towards the end. I will say that I guessed the killer immediately, but anyone can get lucky. I certainly didn’t know how the murder was pulled off.

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    1. I know what you mean about the three false solutions and particularly the unlocked window. Though I think I liked how, although they were form variations as you say, that the solutions play into each of the different characters/authors style of solution, and how the variations reveal how each writer would approach a locked room problem is pretty great.

      I didn’t get the final solution either, and thought is was extremely clever. Again it fitted with the character of Beef and the parody that he brought as well. There really was a lot accomplished with this book!

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