Dress Down Sunday: Dead Man’s Shoes by Leo Bruce

published 1958


Dead Man's Shoes 1

[Sleuth Carolus Deene goes to Cadiz in search of a witness to an alibi]

He knew Molly Gibbons by reputation. She was one of the many English and American remittance women who live on gin and adultery in that area. From Malaga to Gibraltar the coast is thick with them, each proclaiming her difference from the rest, each more malicious and amorous than the last. From Gibraltar to Cadiz they thin out a bit, but Tangier has coveys of them. Mrs Gibbons had been a gay and pretty girl in the 1930's, and she seemed to suppose that there had been no change in either the world or herself since then and that the raffish cocktail party of that time was still going on.

Carolus rang at the door of her flat and was told by a Spanish maid that she was not up yet.

"Come in, whoever you are!" shouted a voice from an inner room, and Carolus found himself gazing at a somewhat dishevelled figure in bed. "Hell, it's a man! Wait till I do something to my face," said Molly Gibbons and disappeared into the bathroom, to return a few minutes later looking happier. "Who are you and who sent you to see me? Take a cigarette and hand me one, there's a darling. What about a drink? Just one for elevenses. Do I know you? I expect I do, but I'm going to be honest and say I don't remember. You'll find the gin and everything on a table in the next room. Just mix a couple, there's an angel. You look as though I ought to know you. London, was it, or Torremolinos? Leave the door open while you do the drinks and we can go on talking."

"My name's Deene. Carolus Deene."

commentary: This was my first encounter with the Carolus Deene, and I really enjoyed it – especially as the book could have fitted in with either of our Tuesday Night themes earlier in the year: a boat trip is important in the plot, and Deene has his base as a teacher in a school. I think the recommendation came from one of the other Tuesday Night-ers, not sure who. (Usual deal – remind me in the comments below and I will give you belated credit.)

It’s funny harmless stuff, swinging between a quiet rural village where the local squire-figure has been shot, and the excitingly exotic location of Tangier – the boat travels between the two.

The series detective Deene is a silly but fun figure, and I absolutely loved his side-kick: one of his sixth-formers, Rupert (which apparently is Leo Bruce’s real first name, is that significant?) who cannot go to his parents for vacation, and needs extra tutoring. Deene takes him sleuthing instead. Rupert is a delinquent charmer, busybodying around in his teenage way, and I felt he really added to the book. I rely on others to tell me if he appears in later books?

They go round interviewing all the witnesses, and each person they interview has a different verbal tic or trick – that’s easy pickings, but it makes for some very funny conversations, and helps the reader keep everyone straight in your mind. So the cook always finishes other people’s sentences, while the gamekeeper ‘thinks he's Lady Chatterley's lover’, and talks as a cross between DH Lawrence and the characters of Cold Comfort Farm:
‘[She’s] a nuzzly, nestly little duck. If I talked to her at all it was all lollipops and pretty one, not serious about other people or anything of the sort. She's not a moppet to go sermonizing to, but a flimsy, flirty little pet to take in the meadows.’
Clothes and appearances are very important in this book, which obviously I approve of a lot, and Bruce makes good use of the possibilities. I liked this description of Deene -

a slim, dapper man, who was considered by the rest of the staff to be far too dressy and casual 
- an interesting combination.

Much is made of the man on the ship who has ‘a high stiff collar. Old-fashioned in his dress’ – this picture is of Alfred Q Collins from the Smithsonian.

Dead Man's Shoes 2

One interesting point is that young Rupert is very snooty about a pub offering cocktails, and tells the barmaid:
‘No, dear; cocktails went out with vaudeville…. Cocktails in the Snuggery. It's wonderfully pre-war.’
The swings and roundabouts of drink fashions…

I’m definitely up for more of Leo Bruce – there’s always room for an undemanding but entertaining crime story on my shelves.

The rather dishevelled lady in the top photo is the actress Arlene Dahl. I am very fond of this photo, because (and I think from the passage above it is clear Bruce would agree) a character like this turns up in so many books of the mid-20th century…


  1. Oh, this does sound like fun, Moira. And that Tangier setting sounds intriguing, as does the connection between it and the village. The writing looks appealing, too, from the bit you've shared. It's interesting, too, about Rupert being the sidekick here. There are some interesting cases of young people in that role, and now you've got my head buzzing with them. It's a plot point that can work very well. Glad you enjoyed this.

    1. I love it when we get a glimpse of the wheels turning in your head Margot - it's a privilege! Hope something comes of it...

  2. I haven't read anything by Leo Bruce, although I do have the first of his Sergeant Beef mysteries. This series sounds good too. Maybe I will run into some at the book sale.

    And I was glad to see that I was not imagining things. I knew I had seen that photo on the blog before.

    1. I'd never heard of him till recently, and was astonished to see how much he'd written. I can't start on another series so will pick and choose...
      Yes, that picture was used not that long ago in fact!

  3. I think I'll stick with the Shane Meadow's film of the same title. Much more my thing.

  4. The Leo Bruce book that has appeared on the net most in the last few years is A CASE FOR THREE DETECTIVES, where Sgt Beef meets thinly disguised parodies of Wimsey, Poirot and Father Brown. The Carolus Deene books don't seem to have inspired the same amount of words, and I've found them sllightly harder to find, but he is slowly creeping back into print after ages of neglect.

    The stuff about cocktails in pubs in interesting, as I found a website about Bruce where there are a lot of excerpts from his writing about food and drink. He seems to have had very fixed ideas about the correct sort of booze and food to drink to imbibe, and the etiquette of drinking in pubs (he had a bee in his bonnet about ladies playing darts).

    Apparently the schoolboy Rupert was still appearing in the books in the late '60s, apparently not having aged a single day!

    1. My oh my, that's all so interesting. I love the idea of Rupert remaining a schoolboy. And Bruce sounds like one of those larger-than-life characters - perhaps with a touch of that jack of all trades trait?


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