Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Excellent
Excellent Intentions
Richard Hull
Originally Published 1938

Excellent Intentions is a Golden Age crime novel that tells the story of the trial of a person accused of killing Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate, a highly disagreeable landowner. This is not a legal thriller but rather a fairly conventional mystery as the accused’s identity is held back from the reader and they will have to deduce it from the court proceedings.

On the day of his murder, Cargate was set to make a journey by train. After complaining to the station master about a small delay and the conduct of his staff, Cargate enters the compartment and is observed appearing to take snuff from his pocket and putting it to his nostril before violently collapsing. Upon examination of the snuff case the police discover that the contents had been laced with poison.

The bulk of Hull’s story establishes the case for the prosecution, building up a timetable and establishing the personalities of the suspects and their possible reasons for wanting Cargate dead. Once this information is provided a handful of chapters at the end detail the remainder of the trial, the jury discussions and final outcome.

I have to say that I am undecided about whether I feel this structure worked. On the one hand, I think Hull does manage to hide the accused’s identity well while still providing enough clues that it can be fairly worked out. I also think that there is something inherently interesting in exploring the power of the jury and the personalities that make one up although I think it misses the opportunity to consider that in even greater detail. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed by how little we hear from the defence although, like Kate, I understand its necessity to preserve the surprise of the suspect’s identity.

The other issue I had was with the character of the victim, Cargate, who seems cartoonishly horrible from the start of the novel. While I do not require a rigidly realistic approach in my crime reading, this presentation of the character verges on being inadvertently comical and comes close to rendering the opening of the novel ridiculous.

Cargate is presented as being underhand in his dealings with his staff and others while also possessing an argumentative and vindictive streak. Moments before his death he is threatening to report staff at the train station for accidentally bumping into him and for the train being a couple of minutes late. Couple that with his refusal to consider employing anyone local, preferring to acquire much more expensive servants in London.

Inspector Fenby is tasked with investigating the death and starts interviewing suspects, compiling a short list of three or four credible killers. This section of the novel is, as a consequence, quite slow and I would not disagree with PuzzleDoctor’s description of it as being a ‘bit time-tabley’. Be prepared to spend a lot of time trying to work out who was where and when!

Fenby does not have an awful lot of personality and there are no attempts to build him up as a character. He largely exists to fulfil a role that drives the story forward while being credible as a witness and investigating officer. I think he does that reasonably well but it does make the middle of the novel seem a little dry.

The suspect pool is thankfully a little more entertaining and imaginative than the sleuth and it contains several colorful characters. I was entertained by the stories told of meetings held on the day of Cargate’s murder and think that the puzzle of who was responsible was interesting, if not enthralling.

Though not a perfect read, I do think that this is a solid and intriguing one. For those keen to try Hull’s work, I would certainly suggest looking at The Murder of My Aunt first.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Changes to the final two paragraphs of this review were made within moments of publication – I had accidentally tapped post while writing. Whoops!

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

MurderofMyAunt
The Murder of My Aunt
Richard Hull
Originally Published 1934

The Murder of My Aunt is a story in the inverted style, told from the perspective of a young man who is plotting to kill the aunt who he must live with in order to receive an allowance that he regards as pitifully small. It is an overtly comedic tale and, in talking about it with friends, I have likened it to imagining a less imaginative, more feckless Bertie Wooster trying to off his Aunt Agatha without any assistance from Jeeves.

It should be said that not only is this not a conventional mystery novel, it isn’t even really a conventional inverted story either as almost all of the action takes place prior to the murder taking place. There is no period of reflection, no telltale conscience or worrying about clues left at the scene. Instead this is a journal-style report of the development of the protagonist’s plans as they try to find a scheme that will work.

The first few chapters are the best in the whole book as we get to know that protagonist and see how his resentment towards his aunt has built and the manner of their interactions with each other. The incident that sparks it all is his Aunt insisting that Edward take a stroll into the village to pick up a parcel of the French novels he orders that she thoroughly disapproves of. He wishes to avoid the exercise but everything he thinks to try she has already prepared for. It is tremendously enjoyable opening to the novel and features some of the best comical writing I have ever encountered.

It is in the aftermath of that event that we see Edward come to the decision that his aunt must die and he begins to scheme ways to make that happen. There are still a number of very funny moments and sequences in these sections of the book as the battle of wits continues and the reader might be forgiven for wondering if the titular murder will ever take place. Don’t worry, it will and when we finally get to that moment the reader ought to be prepared to work out precisely how it will be managed based on the hints dropped throughout the rest of the novel.

Both Edward and his Aunt Mildred are glorious creations and come to vivid life on the page. Certainly their antagonistic relationship feels believable and like one that may have developed over a lifetime of growing up in close proximity to someone you don’t particularly like or respect.

Edward is idle, insolent and believes that he is entitled to live a life of leisure and comfort at his aunt’s expense. He begrudges having to live in the country where he lacks diversions, and lavishes what little attention he possesses upon his French novels, his Pekinese dog So-So and his fashionable roadster La Joyeuse. He is not unintelligent but does not apply himself to anything which will be one of the challenges he will struggle to overcome in organizing an effective murder plot.

Meanwhile his Aunt Mildred is domineering and wishes to mold her nephew into her image of a fit young man to be the future of their old family name. Even keeping in mind that this narrative is told from the perspective of a man who feels vindictively toward her, she is someone it would be hard to like and the reader may well question whether there might have been a better approach she might have taken in managing her wayward charge.

The secondary characters are much less vividly drawn and occupy only very limited roles in Edward’s narrative, reflecting his narrow view of events, though they do play significant roles in parts of the plot. Hull’s writing style is engaging and even though it becomes clear where things will be headed by the midpoint of the novel, I felt the novel lost little of its interest.

Unfortunately I think there is little more I can say about this novel without running the risk of spoiling the experience. I am extremely glad I read it and have already sought out some other books by Hull that I plan on reading over the next few months. What I can say is that this is an excellent, if unconventional entry in the British Library Crime Classics collection and well worth checking out if you like darkly humorous stories or the inverted mystery form. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Crime involved fire/arson (How) – A bit of a cheat here but there is an incident of arson within the narrative.

Review copy provided by the publisher.