I’m really pleased to be reviewing this book as I loved The Murder of My Aunt (1934), but I have not been able to get my hands on more of Hull’s work since then. Based on these two books I would say Hull’s style to mystery fiction is definitely comic crime. Neither of these two stories are conventional mysteries involving detective work or investigation, in fact they are from the perspective of those infringing the law, intentionally or otherwise and seeing how such characters respond to the consequences of their own or others’ actions.
In Keep It Quiet (1935), it all begins with Mr Benson who takes to the London club he works at as a chef, a bottle of perchloride of mercury. This is meant to be put rubbed on his carbuncle. Yet his wife decants half of his prescription into an essence of vanilla bottle for him to take it in. Readers at this point can probably guess what is going to happen and no one would be surprised to hear that Morrison, one of the club’s most annoying members and renowned club complainer is found dead after eating a vanilla soufflé. Alas Benson realises too late what must have happened and the club secretary, an ineffectual people pleaser named Ford, has to decide what to do. In the end he decides that for the sake of the club things should be hushed up, kept quiet, and in order to do that he enlists the help of another club member, Doctor Anstruther. Of course things go from bad to worse. Ford is not the most ideal person for organising a conspiracy for one thing and it equally seems like Benson may not have accidently poisoned Morrison after all. So along with wondering how Morrison did die, Ford also has the bigger problem of an anonymous letter writer, one who seems to know about the cover up and wants to use it as leverage to get Ford to organise the club the way he wants it done. The letter writer also gets onto Anstruther, though their interest in the doctor is far more sinister, pertaining to the procuring of poisons.
In the midst of all this there is also a book thief, stealing books from the club library. Ford’s weak nature means he is often vacillating between obeying and rebelling against the letter writer; with his attempts at obeying being thwarted by other club members, ignorant of all this going on behind the scenes. Crossed wires abound a plenty in this book keeping the reader guessing right up until the end as to how all of this will work out.
Comic crime is not the easiest type of mystery story to get right. The humour has to be finely balanced to avoid tastelessness or farce. Not every mystery writer achieves this. But thankfully for me Hull certainly does. He manages the comedy well, never overreaching himself and instead a consistent ripple of quiet chuckling ensues. He creates a very believable world in his book; you can imagine people acting as Hull characters do and the character psychology is spot on. I think Hull by and large steers away from the slapstick and absurd elements found in Pamela Branch’s work, but like her maintains a more amoral environment. This is a story which pleasingly sets up a chain of events, with event after event following simply because of X or Y happening at the start. The letter writer aspect of the book is used effectively, with the letters encouraging the reader to build up a mental picture of what the blackmailer is like – but be aware of their deceptiveness and guile! There is a detecting strand to this story of sorts, which Hull handles in an interesting and clever way, turning towards and away from parody with an ultimately quite ironic ending. I did guess the twist which appears about half way through the book, but nevertheless it is still a hugely entertaining and clever mystery, with plenty more for the reader to find out and ponder, even if they twig the key twist. Unsurprisingly I heartily recommend this book if you can get your hands on it. A very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.