Rupert Croft-Cooke

Biografie şi Bibliografie

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Rupert Croft-Cooke, who wrote his best-known detective novels under the pseudonym Leo Bruce, was born in Edenbridge, Kent, to Hubert Bruce Cooke and Lucy Taylor Cooke. He attended Tonbridge School in Kent and Wellington College (now Wrekin College) before studying at the University of Buenos Aires in 1923-1926. While living in Buenos Aires, Croft-Cooke founded a weekly, La Estrella, and edited it in 1923-1924. He worked as an antiquarian bookseller in 1929-1931 and lectured at the English Institute Montana, Zugerberg, Switzerland, in 1931. In 1940 he entered the British intelligence corps, and two years later he served with distinction in the Madagascar campaign, earning the British Empire Medal. He was given command of the Third (Queen Alexandra's Own) Gurka Rifles in 1943 and in 1944 became a captain and field security officer for the Poona District. An instructor at the British intelligence school in Karachi in 1945, he was field security officer for the Delhi District in 1945-1946. He returned to England in 1946 and became a book critic for the Sketch (London), leaving in 1953 to devote his full time to his writing.

Croft-Cooke's experiences abroad are not reflected in his mystery novels, which are relentlessly British in their settings and characters. The detectives in the two well-known series he wrote as Leo Bruce are a Cockney policeman, Sgt. William Beef, who, flushed with beer and a few successful cases, quits the police force to open up his own detective agency; and Carolus Deene, a widower and an independently wealthy former paratrooper, who is now history master at a minor public school. The author of the well-received Who Killed William Rufus? And Other Mysteries of History, Deene became a gentleman detective through his research into historical mysteries.

The first Bruce novels feature Sergeant Beef and are narrated by the not entirely likable Lionel Townsend, who is ostensibly the author of accounts of Beef's cases. Townsend is a snob who looks down at Beef's supposed inferiority in class, education, and intelligence, and he presents Beef as a beer-drinking, darts-playing buffoon who merely stumbles through luck onto the solutions to his cases. The relationship between chronicler and subject remains touchy throughout the eight Sergeant Beef mysteries (1936-1952). Townsend frequently makes it clear to Beef that he is doing Beef a favor by recording his cases for posterity.

In Case with No Conclusion (1939), however, Beef rebels against Townsend's narrative treatment. This fourth novel in the series is the first to follow Beef's adventures after he has retired from the police force, and in the first chapter Beef complains in detail that he is losing potential clients because of the way Townsend is writing about him. Beef mentions the favorable treatment Anthony Gethryn, Albert Campion, and Dr. Gideon Fell get from their authors. He also charges that Townsend overemphasizes his accent--which, in fact, makes the first three books of the series, especially Case without a Corpse (1937), difficult to read. Townsend agrees to make the changes Beef wants in the hope that both readership and cases will increase, and, indeed, in later books Beef's accent is hardly noticeable, while Townsend's snobbishness has diminished but has not disappeared.

The first Beef novel, Case for Three Detectives (1936), is an ingenious locked-room mystery, in which three famous detectives, Simon Plimsoll, Amer Picon, and Monsignor Smith (thinly disguised versions of Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown), are shown up by the lowly Sergeant Beef. The three offer plausible solutions to the murder while Beef listens and then explains what really happened. Beef describes his method of detection in Case with Ropes and Rings (1940): "I don't do a lot of skylarking with microscopes and that, and I have no opinion at all of what they call psychology. I just use my loaf." He is contemptuous of other policemen's methods, and in fact policemen are not well regarded in any of the Beef novels. As a character in Case for Three Detectives puts it, "My dear chap, when you've seen as much of them as I have you'll know that they don't think at all. They just guess." In any of Bruce's mysteries, despite the fair clues given to the reader, it is difficult to outreason the detective or to identify the murderer before the end of the book. In the intricately plotted Cold Blood (1952), for example, Beef shows that what appeared to be murder was really suicide and what seemed to be an obvious suicide was in fact murder.

Three years after the last Beef novel appeared in 1952 Bruce introduced Carolus Deene. As a result of the response to his historical research, Deene is asked to solve many present-day crimes. Although his headmaster, Hugh Gorringer, and his housekeeper, Mrs. Stick, do not want him to pursue these extracurricular interests, Deene accepts all cases because, as he explains in Our Jubilee Is Death (1959), he does not "like murder anywhere by anyone for any motive at all.... It's monstrously presumptuous." Like Beef, Deene is unimpressed by the police work that he witnesses. Yet--except for one member of the local police force, John Moore, who appears in several early novels-the police tell him they are better equipped than he to solve crimes. Like Beef, however, Deene sees his own methods of detection as vastly different from and far superior to those of the police. "He had never believed greatly in forensic chemistry or the use of the microscope or even, except in rare cases, finger prints" (A Bone and a Hank of Hair, 1961). Instead he relies heavily on intuition: "He trusted little more than his instincts, his gift of logic, and insight into motives" (Death in the Middle Watch, 1974). In Furious Old Women (1960), for example, he has "a strange superstitious feeling that ahead of him lay great evil and perhaps danger, that the death of Millicent Griggs, horrible though it was, would prove to be only a part of something more menacing and beastly." In Crack of Doom (1963), one of the best Deene novels, intuition plays an important role in his investigation of a so-called perfect murder: the murderer acted solely from a desire to kill for the experience itself and had no discernible motive in choosing his victim. Deene gets "a whiff of something abnormal and hellish" when he begins investigating this case.

Despite Deene's intuitions, his solutions to cases are based on more than feelings. Bruce rarely relies on trick solutions or coincidence, though in Nothing Like Blood (1962) one of the characters happens to be adept at tightrope walking, and she helps Deene catch the murderer through this unlikely talent.

The best of the Deene novels were written in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, beginning with Our Jubilee Is Death and continuing through Death in Albert Park (1964). Some of the early Deene novels appear somewhat derivative. The first, At Death's Door (1955), for example, is reminiscent of Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders (1936). The best of the Deene novels include memorable minor characters, such as the victim in Our Jubilee Is Death, an unloved and unlovely mystery writer. Part of A Bone and a Hank of Hair is set in an artist colony in Cornwall, which is peopled by such obviously named writers as Oswald Auden and Sacheverell Spender. Death in Albert Park contains another well-drawn minor character: Goggins, who does not finish eating one meal until the next one begins.

A Bone and a Hank of Hair is typical of the best Deene novels in its intricate plot. A man appears to have murdered each of his three wives, but Deene discovers that he has murdered none of them. In Crack of Doom coincidence complicates the plot when the murder victim turns out to be the murderer's long-lost brother, and the murderer must kill again to cover up the original crime.

The earliest Bruce novels are somewhat dated by their reflection of the prejudices and stereotypical outlooks of their times. Thurston, in the first Beef novel, Case for Three Detectives , is described as having "the jolly German simplicity and sentimentality." These novels also contain undertones of the anti-Semitism of upper-class British society during the 1930s. Women get the short shrift as well. In Case for Three Detectives Townsend describes "awful parties in London at which women with unpleasant breath advocate free love and nudism." Bruce's few female characters tend to be unconvincing stereotypes.

Yet, despite these limitations, Leo Bruce is clearly one of the best of the mystery writers of his day, and his intricately plotted and consistently interesting novels deserve to be read.

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