This book is another lovely old Penguin I picked up online while browsing eBay – I blame apenguinaweek myself! It’s a Golden Age mystery, first published in 1936, and comes with many treats!

The action takes place in the typical setting of a country house in Sussex where a motley crew of guests are staying with Dr. and Mrs. Thurston, their happy hosts. After a little discussion on mystery novels and a few suspicious circumstances, Mrs. Thurston is found dead. Our narrator is one of the guests, a young man called Townsend, and the local policeman Sgt. Beef is summoned. However, as if out of thin air, three great detectives just happen to be in the vicinity and offer to help. These are Lord Simon Plimsoll (and his manservant Butterfield), M. Amer Picon and Monsignor Smith. Connoisseurs will no doubt realise just who these gentleman are based on!

The plot proceeds apace, with Townsend acting as daft sidekick to all three great sleuths as they try to track down the murderer of Mrs. Thurston and solve what appears to be a locked-room mystery. Sgt. Beef sits stolidly to one side, claiming that he knows who did it right from the beginning, while the other three detectives go off in various directions trying to nail the culprit. The mystery itself is an excellent one and I confess that I had no idea who had actually perpetrated the murder. I’m not going to say too much about the plot because this would spoil it very much but suffice to say the resolution is very satisfying.

What’s lovely about this novel is how it works on so many different levels. It has all the hallmarks of a Golden Age crime novel – country house, silly-ass characters, mysterious Vicar, suspicious servants – and those qualities alone make it extremely readable. But tucked into Townsend’s observations are plenty of witty and pointed comments on the absurdities of detection fiction. Yes, it’s funny how conveniently these sleuths happen to turn up when there’s a murder. And isn’t it strange how people who would normally be wracked with grief at a murder suddenly start taking part in the hunt for the killer like it’s some kind of game? This delightful novel pokes fun at all the silly things we take for granted in a classic detective story and still manages to deliver an enjoyable tale – it was very gripping in the end, one of those books you have to finish and then realise it’s well past midnight…

I looked Leo Bruce up online and his real name was Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903-1979). He was quite a prolific writer but his life was blighted by the homosexuality laws at the time. Bruce wrote a whole series of Sgt. Beef tales as well as those featuring a detective Carolus Deene, but all are rather hard to find. It’s a shame this neglected writer’s works have been allowed to slip out of print.