Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm launched a series featuring a Yorkshire detective which eventually ran to eleven novels. Not only did the books enjoy considerable popularity, the eponymous sergeant also became a television detective, brought vividly to life by Leslie Sands. Despite this success, rather more than half a century after Cluff’s first appearance in print, he has become a forgotten detective. Yet as this book shows, he is a distinctive and impressive character, and the crisp, concisely written stories about him retain their power to this day.
Cluff’s first recorded case concerns the death of a woman in her forties. Amy Wright had married late in life, to a much younger man. She was quite comfortably off, yet is found dead at her home, poisoned by gas in her own bedroom. The local coroner presides over the inquest – splendidly described – which reaches the predictable verdict that Amy has committed suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed. Modern readers may better appreciate the nuances of local reaction to Amy’s death if they bear in mind that, when this novel first appeared, suicide was still a crime in the UK; decriminalisation only came with the Suicide Act 1961.
One person is not satisfied, and that is Sergeant Caleb Cluff. Cluff lives alone in an old cottage in his native Gunnarshaw, with a dog, a cat, and an irascible cleaning lady for company. He comes from farming stock, and his brother, who farms at nearby Cluff End, plays an important part in the story. Cluff has never married, but possesses a deep understanding of human nature, born of years of observing life in a small community at close quarters; in this respect, if in no others, he resembles Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
Like so many fictional detectives, Cluff has a difficult relationship with those in authority, and in particular with the officious Inspector Mole, who resents feeling much less at ease with the local community than his stubborn, taciturn subordinate. At first glance, Cluff seems almost to be a caricature of the grumpy Yorkshireman, but beneath the dour, taciturn exterior lurks an instinctive sympathy for the underdog, as well as a fierce contempt for arrogance and cruelty.
He commands the respect of young Constable Barker, who is a witness when Cluff menaces Amy’s selfish and shallow husband, whom he suspects of being responsible –morally, if not legally- for Amy’s death. Barker does not, however, have the temerity to voice his private thoughts about Cluff: “…the most down-to-earth of all of us. Your feet on the ground, rooted in the soil. Everything about you –what people mean when they talk of the countryman…Unshakable.” In this story, Cluff behaves like an avenging angel, determined to seek justice for Amy Wright, and allowing nothing and no-one to stand in his way.
It is almost a cliché to compare a strongly evoked setting for a crime novel to a character in the story, but it is undoubtedly true that the sturdy market town of Gunnarshaw, and the bleak, rain-swept moorland outside its boundaries, combine to form the perfect complement to Cluff’s dogged personality. The dead woman’s husband soon becomes overwhelmed by a claustrophobia induced partly by conscience:
“The smallness of Gunnarshaw, the knowledge of its people about each other, oppressed him. He felt suddenly that there was nowhere in Gunnarshaw he could turn, that Sergeant Cluff, if he was not around the first corner, must always be waiting round the second.”
The storyline is strong, but this is not a whodunit; Gil North’s focus is not on mystification for the sake of game-playing, but on the human condition. His work shows the influence of Georges Simenon, and his most famous character, Inspector Jules Maigret. Nor is North unique as a British disciple of Simenon, who also inspired two other novelists working at much the same time as North. They also had their books televised, although long after Cluff reached the screens; Alan Hunter was the author of the novels adapted for the screen as Inspector George Gently, while the Cornishman W.J. Burley was the creator of Wycliffe.
The Sergeant Cluff books are publshed by the British Library