Neck and Neck (Leo Bruce)

  • By Leo Bruce
  • First published: UK: Gollancz, 1951; US: Academy Chicago, 1980

For the first Bruce I’ve read in three years, this is a pleasant surprise. Of course it features Sgt. Beef rather than the plodding Carolus Deene, so we expect (and get) a good-natured parody of the detective story, lively detection by the coarse but very likeable ex-policeman (common, but out of the common) and plenty of amusing characters. The poisoning of Townsend’s aunt and the hanging of a hated publisher are good problems but it will not take a hyper-intelligent reader to guess that the two murders are connected, and how. As usual, Bruce’s innovations are in the construction rather than in the solution (which was most famously used by the Coles in Counterpoint Murder and probably invented by Baroness Orczy).


CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Times Literary Supplement (Julian Symons, 5th October 1951): “Famous detective joins the Gollancz team!” says the yellow dust-wrapper of Neck and Neck; but in fact the detective in question, Sergeant Beef, has never quite received his meed of praise.  Of this the sergeant (now sergeant only by courtesy, for he took up private practice some years ago) is well aware.  “Hardly anybody seems to have heard the name Beef,” he complains to his collaborator, Lionel Townsend.  “Now take Hercule Poirot…”  Mr. Bruce did indeed take Hercule Poirot in the first Sergeant Beef story, Case with Three Detectives, wherein he parodied wickedly the behaviour and methods of Poirot, Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey, and contrasted with them the homely common sense of Beef.  Neck and Neck is perhaps the best Sergeant Beef story since that first one; it offers consistent entertainment in the account of two apparently unconnected murders, ingeniously linked by Beef.  The detective is assisted by a great many pints of beer and hindered by Townsend, a Watsonic bore who needs a rather firmer hand than Mr. Bruce keeps on him.  Neck and Neck, indeed, is not by any means an academically perfect detective story.  Red herrings abound, and some of the characterisation is casual; but much should be forgiven an author capable of inventing so genuine an oddity as Sergeant Beef.

Vernon Fane, The Sphere: Leo Bruce has as neat a hand with a sleuth as any I have seen lately.

The Times: Perhaps the best Sergeant Beef story since the first.

The Scotsman: The inimitable Sergeant is in capital form… Mr. Bruce again scores a double success – a thriller excellent in itself and in its sly thrusts at the conventions of contemporary writers of detective fiction.

Liverpool Daily Post: What a godsend – a writer of thrillers on whom one can rely at sight to produce an intelligent story, with frequent chuckles to leaven the wits-sharpening… An ingenious tale.

Punch: Neatly plotted and amusingly decorated.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Sgt. Beef is undoubtedly the first incarnation of Joyce Porter’s Dover, whether or not Miss P. consciously modelled her man on the large, ungainly, blunt and underbred sergeant.  But Beef is not made disgusting or despicable.  Uncouthness is enough, and it has a purpose, which is to show how intelligence cuts through conventions.  The ploy to make murder safe in Neck and Neck is foreseen by the acute reader, but its details are so well scattered that guessing only enhances suspense.