Case for Sergeant Beef
BY WAY OF PREAMBLE
I had made up my mind to have no more to do with murder. Before the war I had faithfully chronicled the investigations of Sergeant Beef into five mysteries and had enjoyed watching him, whose great quality as a detective was his sturdy common sense, find his way among the maze of evidence and eventually, and always, get his man.
When I had first met him he had been no more than a village policeman, and it was my ability to record his work in a series of novels which had raised him to the level of a famous investigator. But he had shewn little or no gratitude and had frequently complained that the books I had written about him were not widely enough read. So now that the war was over and I had decided to abandon the work of a crime novelist for the more secure and profitable profession of marine insurance, I had no scruple in telling him so. He had never appreciated me, I felt, and I wondered whom he would find to replace me as his Boswell.
Whoever it might be would have no easy job. For Beef, burly, red-faced, heavy of hand and humour, with that dark ginger moustache of his which straggled over his lips and looked as though its tips were nourished on beer, with his portentous announcements and his irritating complacency, was not a man to appeal to the great public as an inspired investigator. And although I had to admit that he always did find the answer where others failed, and that under his solid exterior there was something akin to genius, and that he had a kind of boyish enthusiasm which was very infectious, still I rather wondered whether he would find another writer to take him up. The fashion was for detectives of high social standing and large private incomes, while Beef was dependent on what he actually earned in his cases.
At any rate, I had had enough. It is true that I had not seen very much bloodshed during the war, though as an officer in the R.I.A.S.C. I had been, as they say, not a thousand miles from the fighting, but still I felt I wanted a rest from murder, and I decided to tell Beef frankly that if he intended to return to detection he would have to find a replacement for me.
I had heard from him once or twice during the war. He had joined the Special Investigation Branch of the Corps of Military Police, and had doubtless had his little successes in tracing missing stores, examining questionable imprest returns and arresting officers who had written phoney cheques. I was prepared to find him just as pleased with himself as ever. And I set off on the afternoon of New Year’s Day to see him, break the news of my new profession, and wish him luck in finding my successor.
His home he had found before the war when he had first retired from the Force, and was lucky enough still to possess intact. I smiled as I remembered his first search for it, and his insistence that it must be near Baker Street, which he described as the Harley Street of detection.
“Never do to be out of the swim,” he said, and when he had settled in his house in Lilac Crescent he had stuck up an absurd brass plate with W. Beef: Investigations on it in giant letters. I was not surprised to find this in its place, and freshly polished, when I reached his house that day.
He opened the door himself and greeted me with his big slow grin.
“Hullo,” he said. “I was wondering when you’d turn up. Come along in. And a happy New Year!”
He led the way to what he always called his ‘front room,’ a place of Spanish mahogany, sentimental engravings, and an atmosphere in which the stale smoke of Beef’s pipes blended with the last meal eaten at the plush-covered table. Beef pointed to a horse-hair chair for me and slowly lowered himself into his own favourite one, then lit his pipe.
“I suppose you’ve come round to see if there’s anything doing in the way of a murder story for you to write?” he grinned.
I explained rather tartly that I had come for nothing of the sort, that I had quite made up my mind to have nothing more to do with detection.
“That’s all right,' he said, as though I had been apologizing. “I can soon get someone else to write up my cases. I shouldn’t be surprised but what it mightn’t be just as well, all things considered.”
“What exactly do you mean by that?” I asked icily.
“Well, you never made much of a success of it, did you? Not to say success,” he added.
“I don’t understand you, Beef,” I retorted. “When I met you you were a village policeman. I turned you into a famous detective. I wrote each of your cases.”
“But who worked them out?” asked Beef with a triumphant grin. “Who found the answers?”
“I’m not denying that you did. But you should understand that it’s no use being a good detective nowadays unless you’ve got someone to write you up. Publicity’s the thing.”
“That’s what I say,” said Beef. “And I want someone who’ll give it me. I solve the mysteries, don’t I? Have I ever failed? I ask you. And some of them have been pretty tricky and left the Yard wondering. But what do I get? A few copies of your books in the lending libraries. My wife’s sister who’s always reading, always got her nose in a book she has, says that the young lady at the library she goes to has never heard of Sergeant Beef. What do you think of that?'
I was too angry to speak at first. Then I said ironically—“I suppose I’m to blame?”
“’Course you are,' said Beef. “Why, I ought to be right up with the top-notchers now. Lord Simon Plimsoll and M. Amer Picon and them. I get at the truth just as clever, don’t I?”
“You may,’ I admitted. “But you lack the polish, Beef. These modern detectives are mostly related to Dukes, or if not they know everyone. They’re welcomed in the best houses. They’re always invited to those house-parties at which all the best murders happen. Not to put too fine a point on it, Beef, you’re crude. Rough and ready. Bourgeois.”
“Now you're coming to it!” said Beef. “That’s why I’m not as famous as the rest, is it? Class distinction, again. Well, if that’s the case it’s your fault. You ought never to have made me out no more than what I was. Suppose you’d written me up as Lord William Beef. What then? We’d have had them reading fit to bust themselves.”
“Please don't be nonsensical,” I said, for I saw the satisfied grin on his red face.
“What I need is someone to take me seriously,” he said. “It’s no good you trying to make people see I’m a great detective if you’re giving them a laugh half the time.”
“I write about things as I see them,” I said.
“Literary conscience, eh?” laughed Beef. “All I can say is it doesn’t pay.”
“At any rate, you needn’t worry any more,” I said bitterly. “You are certainly at liberty to find someone else to record any further cases you may get. Someone who’ll present you as slim and aristocratic, with a keen eye and excellently cut clothes, if you like. I’m going to do other work.”
“Well, that’s your business. I dare say it will pay you better. You’re not really cut out for writing, are you?”
I treated this with silent scorn.
“Not according to some of the reviewers you're not, anyway,” concluded Beef. “Still, it’s a pity in a way, particularly just now.”
“Why just now?” I could not help asking.
“Because there’s a lady calling round presently with what looks like a nice little case. A very nice little case.’
“I couldn’t be less interested,’ I said, using, rather effectively, I thought, some of the idiom I had learnt in the army.
“No? Well, that’s all right. Because if this case is what I think of it, it’s serious. Nasty. Murder, or suicide that’s been forced on a man to make it almost murder in itself. And I want to get at the truth with no larking about.”
“Are you inferring that I have ever done any ‘larking about’, as you call it, while we have been investigating?”
“No, but the way you've told the story anybody would think that I had. This case is serious. It wants serious handling. So perhaps it’s just as well that you’re not going to write it up. Still, you may as well stay and have a cup of tea.”
Frankly I did not know what to do.
“What is her name?” I asked Beef.
“The name of the lady who’s coming to see you.”
It meant nothing to me. I had not been studying the news of crime in newspapers lately.
“She’s the sister of a man found dead in a wood in Kent last week,” said Beef.
“Sounds pretty commonplace.”
'Well, what do you expect? Frills on? He was dead, wasn’t he? Shot with a 12-bore. Half his head shot away. What more do you want?”
I was about to say that I wanted nothing except to start my daily work in a quiet office. But at that moment the front-door bell rang and Beef went out to return a moment later with Miss Shoulter.
“This is Mr. Townsend,” he said, “who does the clerical side of my work. Miss Shoulter.”
I was furious, but I managed to conceal it as I shook hands with Beef’s client.
She was a horse-faced woman in her forties. Really horse-faced. It was impossible to look at her without thinking of stables. And she wore the kind of severe tweeds and shapeless felt hat which went with her equine features. She sat on a straight chair, accepted a cigarette from me, and began to talk in a loud, cheerful voice.
“I want you,” she said, “to investigate the death of my brother. The fools think it was suicide.”
“Everyone. I’m told you’re more competent than you look. The police will do nothing, and I won’t have one of these pansified snobs who are supposed to be brilliant investigators hanging around. You can count on me for your fees and expenses. And you can bring your boy-friend with you.” She gave me a jerk of her head. “Only you must get cracking.”
“I think I ought to explain . . .” I began.
But Beef boomed out before I could finish.
“No need for explanations now,” he said. “I’ll take the case. Now what’s the address?”
So against my better judgement, against all my resolutions, I found myself back in the world of crime, found myself following Beef down to Barnford in Kent, and once more watching while he set about the elucidation of a mystery. And a mystery it really looked.