For my final post in this month’s Tuesday Night Bloggers focus on travel in Golden Age crime novels, I thought I’d deviate from the implicit notion of holiday in travel and instead look at itinerancy as explored in Leo Bruce’s fourth Sergeant Beef novel, Case with Four Clowns. Last week I wrote about how John Dickson Carr made the aspect of travelling central to the mystery he created with ‘Cabin B-13’, and arguably Bruce does a similar thing here, albeit coming from a slightly different perspective and playing up to the travel aspect in a slightly more subtle way.
Bruce was, it’s fair to say, wise to the conventions of between-the-wars detective fiction, and his ruthlessness in playing both on and up to them is one of the factors that kept the genre fresh. And so we have Sergeant William Beef, the dunderheaded local bobby who runs rings around the genius amateurs (Case for Three Detectives, recently reviewed by Kate here), the murder with no sign of a victim (Case Without a Corpse), the murderer who plans to commit a murder where they will have no connection with the victim and so be uncatchable (Case for Sergeant Beef) and the previous book in this series, Case with No Conclusion, whose plot is hard to summarise but whose ending – in true convention-baiting style – Bruce tells you on the very first page of Case with Four Clowns. Spoilers, obviously, so be aware.
This time a gypsy’s warning about impending death at a circus brings Beef and his chronicler Lionel Townsend to said circus to watch and wait and see. And, despite trying to go about their business incognito, Townsend is immediately tagged as either an artist or a writer:
“Must I be one or the other?” I asked, evading the question.
“They mostly are.”
“Who are they?”
“Oh, the people who travel with us for a time. There’s always somebody following us around, either painting pictures of people in the ring, of the wagons or the horses, or writing books and stories about circus life.”