Sergeant Ross In Disguise (1940) by Belton Cobb

Sergeant Noel Ross has assumed he would always be in the uniformed division of Scotland Yard until one day when he is summoned to a meeting with, among others, Superintendent Hawk of Special Branch. Hermann Schmidt, a German apprentice, was heading to work in a Hatton Garden diamond merchant when he was killed at the docks, and his papers taken. The killer was, apparently, Huggan, an intelligence officer for the IRA. He is in custody, but the assumption was that something bigger was planned, with Huggan intending to impersonate the German.

As Ross speaks German – learn a second language, kids! – and can do a passable Irish accent too, he is recruited to impersonate Huggan impersonating Schmidt to get to the bottom of what is going on, both in the jewellers and in the local IRA cell. But this is not a good time to be a German in London. With suspicion everywhere, can Ross bluff his way to finding the truth of what is going on while keeping his covers intact?

At some point, I’m going to work out a classification for Belton Cobb’s titles, as he has a number of series sleuths. Cheviot Burmann is his primary character – he is the sleuth in the first eight titles – but this, Cobb’s ninth book, introduces a new lead character. To quote the opening page:

“In this story, we meet a new detective, Sergeant Ross, whose outstanding characteristic, apart from a fondness for getting into difficult situations, is a capacity for bluffing himself out of them.”

There is an element of the caper about this story as Ross goes from problem to problem, desperately trying to keep his cover intact, and it’s a lot of fun. However before you get too excited, I doubt this would see a reprint, as there are sensitive subjects here treated with possibly too light a touch. And possibly too heavy in places as well. One of Ross/Schmidt’s office mates becomes convinced that he is a German spy – war is stated as being imminent and inevitable, with the invasion of Poland having happened – and given that he is still traumatised by the first global conflict, he is somewhat xenophobic and some of his language and opinions simply aren’t repeatable.

On the other hand, the IRA characters, who are hunting a mole in their ranks, were, I felt, treated a little sympathetically in places, despite conducting a bombing campaign in London. Only one of them (who carries a lead pipe in his trousers in case of trouble) is written as an out-and-out villain, but I can’t help feeling that Cobb had at least some sympathies with their cause. Or maybe he just figured that Nazis were worse… There is a definite “all Germans are Nazis” feeling, with Ross having to feign his support for Hitler’s doctrines.

So politically, this is a bit shaky, but it’s a fun read as the hunt for the mole becomes the focus, with Ross keen to find them as it soon becomes clear that Huggan didn’t kill Schmidt, which means the person who did knows that Ross is an imposter. Ross is an interesting lead, but his decision to romance an office-mate while still in disguise is questionable. The quotation above does sum him up nicely, but to be fair to him, he does work out who the mole is and there are a few clues scattered here and there.

So the important point – where is this placed in the Cobb-verse? Burmann doesn’t get a mention but Ross does live in the same universe as in two books time (the next is a standalone, Home Guard Mystery) he and Burmann team up (sort of) in Double Detection and also work together in Death In The Thirteenth Dose. I don’t know if he makes any subsequent appearances…

Overall, this is an interesting book for a number of reasons. Yes, the mole might be a bit obvious – or maybe not – and one bit of behaviour from the villain makes little sense, but it’s definitely worth a look.


    • Well, we’d need to find the text, as this was from the Bodleian. And there is one paragraph that would need… consideration, which basically would win a jackpot on “Inappropriate Words These Days” bingo…


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