At intervals along the lines of shops and offices and banks passages no wider than one man at a time could pass led off both sides of the High Street. They tunnelled the buildings and became tiny streets, cottages facing each other across gaps Cluff could have spanned with his arms extended. The W.C.s were separate at the end of the rows of cottages and then the ginnels burrowed again under larger buildings before giving access to a road running parallel to the High Street.
At this year’s Bodies from the Library, Martin Edwards and Rob Davies from the British Library’s publishing team introduced the Gil North books as a move forward from their Golden Age publishing into the 1960s.
North’s series character Sergeant Caleb Cluff is a rustic figure, a traditionalist of Yorkshire farming stock with deep roots in Gunnarshaw (a fictionalised Skipton). His family still farms at Cluff’s Head a few miles out of town. The Sergeant lives in a cottage with a collie, a cat, and a housekeeper, drives an ancient two-seater Morris and walks with a stick.
However, there is nothing cosy about Cluff, this isn’t the sunny 60s Yorkshire of Heartbeat. It is a harsh landscape barely sustaining tough people.
Water from the moor poured down the lane. He splashed along as if he was wading in a stream, his shoes disintegrating, his trousers soaked to the knees. The mud spattered him as he pushed himself forward. He bit at the icy air, which hurt his throat and made his lungs congeal.
There’s something implacable and Biblical about Cluff, which makes his colleagues uneasy and nettles his superiors.
[Inspector Mole] had a tidy mind and Caleb Cluff with his dog and his cat and his cottage two miles from town, fitted into none if his pigeon-holed.
And this is a cold story.
A woman in her forties (enough to make her a noted spinster in those days) called Amy has apparently committed suicide. Amy had recently married a younger man named Wright, a newcomer to the town and a bit of a jack the lad. Public opinion is that he married her for her little bit of money, and that she gassed herself when she realised her mistake.
She’d no experience. She couldn’t see what he was. I tried to tell her but it doesn’t do to meddle. She didn’t speak to me for weeks.
However, Cluff suspects murder – or at least blames Wright – and sets out to avenge Amy. He doesn’t so much detect as loom at Wright until the latter loses heart and makes a run for it. But Wright isn’t Cluff’s real enemy – his real enemy is waiting out on a remote farm on the moors.
Cluff belongs to the land and sees this as his greatest strength, but it is also his greatest weakness, as is revealed in the final chapters which unexpectedly ramp up the drama and make things personal.
At the British Library event, Edwards described North as a Yorkshire Simenon. I’m still to read a Maigret novel, but I have read a few Simenon novellas and there is some similarity in tone, especially in the unforgiving descriptions of women.
Her eyes were red with lack of sleep, black, sunken half-circles under them. Her clothes kept her flesh together and Cluff guessed that, undressed she would be shapeless.
Some fine descriptions of the landscape (water drips off everything), an angrily determined detective obsessed with avenging the death of a nondescript victim, and a sudden shift towards action at the end: it’s all a bit Scandinavian. The British Library could be packaging this as northern noir, and from that point of view I wonder if the picture-postcard cover undermines the book. Definitely worth a look.
There is a second Cluff novel, The Methods of Sergeant Cluff, also due to be published; he appeared in a total of eleven novels.
Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm
First published 1960 by Chapman & Hall Ltd
This edition British Library, 2016
Source: Publisher’s review copy
Final destination: A keeper