The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North

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Reviewed by Harriet

The rain wept on him from the eyes of the trees. The winter afternoon waned to its close. He withdrew into himself, stifling thought, powerless to guide or control, too far on his way at this stage to go back, carried on by the tide of events. The sound of footsteps on the gravel penetrated his understanding but he didn’t look up, waiting to hear Barker’s voice. The footsteps stopped. He forgot them, sinking back into oblivion.

In this remarkable 1961 novel, the second in Gil North’s Sergeant Cluff series, we are not told explicitly what the methods of the eponymous sergeant are. But the passage quoted above seems a good example of the working practice of this fascinating and undoubtedly unusual policeman. Set in Gunnarshaw, a fictional town on the edge of the Yorkshire moors which is clearly based on the author’s hometown of Skipton, the novel tells the story of a murder and its eventual solution. So, of course, do the majority of crime novels. But this one is set apart by the quality of the writing, which is sparse and poetic, and above all by the character of Cluff himself.

As the novel begins, the body of a young woman is discovered lying face down on the cobblestones. She is quickly identified as Jane Trundle, a local beauty who worked as an assistant in the local chemist’s shop. The possibility of robbery being the motive is quickly dismissed when it’s discovered that she had more money on her purse than could be accounted for by her meagre wages. Jim, an eighteen-year-old local man, initially falls under suspicion. He’s known to have had a violent crush on Jane, who, however, did not reciprocate at all. But Cluff is sure he was not responsible, and after a visit to a backstreet café he manages to secure a solid alibi for Jim.

A more likely suspect is Jane’s employer, Greensleeve. Unpleasantly full of himself, harsh to his young female employees, he soon turns out to have had much more than a working relationship with Jane, who also, as the post-mortem reveals, was pregnant. Cluff visits his angry, bitter wife and an older female relative who appears to live with them, and gets conflicting stories about the time of Greensleeve’s return home on the night of the murder. Who should he believe?

This is not a novel of tremendous action – Gil North is not your man for that. It is, however, one of tremendous psychological suspense and acuity. Cluff, as we saw above, is a thinker and a brooder. He’s viewed with some distrust by his superior officers but his second in command Barker likes and trusts him – there’s a great scene where the two men repair to Cluff’s remote moorland cottage and sit comfortably by the fire with Clive the dog and Jenet the cat, scoffing the meat pie, cakes and buns left in the larder for by Cluff’s housekeeper. Mostly, though, he’s a loner and solves crimes mainly by thinking about them. 

One of the great pleasures of reading Gil North’s novels is the great sense of place that they contain. I don’t know what Gunnershaw/Skipton would be like today, but in the 1960s it was a bleak, grim, old-fashioned town, the epitome really of what we southerners imagine it’s like ‘up north’. And Cluff himself pretty much personifies the qualities of the town, as this passage on the musings of the suspected murderer makes clear:

Gunnarshaw wasn’t Greensleeve, go-ahead, modern, properly appreciative of the age in which it existed. Gunnarshaw had deceived him, smiling on him only to withdraw its favour. The town was Cluff, sprawling, untidy, rooted to the soil from which it sprang, akin to the hills that sheltered it, wild and unchanged since the beginning of time. Gunnarshaw drowned in the mire of its own obstructive tradition. It clung leechlike to the past, spurning the progress that Greensleeve promised. Where else but Gunnershaw would he have stood condemned, driven to ruin by so little a sin? Where else a Cluff, in these modern days, to hunt the spirit rather than the fact of a crime?

I reviewed the first book in this series , Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, in the previous edition of Shiny, and am delighted to have had the chance to read this, which follows on closely from that novel. While this one can undoubtedly stand alone, I’d recommend reading them as a pair – they are quite short and, in my opinion, quite exceptionally interesting books. I don’t think anyone who reads them will even forget Caleb Cluff and his unusual methods: ‘More than facts were in question here, the intangible, invisible passions of human beings’. I hope the British Library will revive more of these fascinating novels in the future.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Gil North, The Methods of Sergeant Cluff (British Library, 2016). 978-0712356473, 173pp., paperback original. 

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