Excellent Intentions (1938) by Richard Hull

This book is structured around the trial for the murder of Henry Cargate, who was poisoned whilst on a train. The story begins with the prosecution’s case and the narrative moves from character to character in the courtroom – judge, counsel, even the accused, showing as Raymond Postgate would do in his later story The Verdict of Twelve (1940), the little factors which go into people’s judgements. This being Hull you may be wondering what the sneaky element is and in this case it is the fact that throughout the trial we never know the name of the accused until near the end. So what effect does this have on the reading experience? It doesn’t change the name of the game, you still need to solve who did the crime, but I think it heightens the challenge, as you scrutinise the text more closely to see if there are any clues as to who might be in the dock.

Although the death takes place in a train most of the investigation by the police takes place at Cargate’s country abode and it is his staff who are under suspicion the most. As the book progresses it is easy to see why someone would want to murder Cargate, who seems to go out of his way to be unpleasant, so much so that even the local vicar becomes a suspect. Whilst this is courtroom mystery novel, the narrative is made more entertaining and readable by the fact that there are longer sections where the reader is almost taken back to the event in question, as though in a third person flashback. The defence don’t have much space within this narrative, understandably enough, with just a few moments of cross examining early on in the book, (there couldn’t be too much after all as it would give the game away as to who is in the dock), and then a 14 page chapter near the end where the defence discuss their possible lines of attack. The few remaining chapters are the Judge’s summing up, the discussion amongst the jury and then the verdict.

Overall Thoughts

Starting with the positives, I think Hull does successfully manage to narrate the case without revealing the identity of the defendant until three-quarters of the way through. Moreover, the narration itself is made more interesting by the way it shifts from character to character using free indirect speech. However, in contrast to other stories of his, such as The Murder of My Aunt (1934) and Keep It Quiet (1935), I think this narrative voice lacked a little of the vitality he captures in the others. Equally this is a much less humorous story by Hull, though there are moments of satire, such as when the lawyer explains how Cargate is leaving his money to the nation, (a move Cargate thinks will profit nobody), as the lawyer goes onto to say to the inspector that: ‘You won’t, by the way, be able to contest that will on the ground that leaving everything of which you die possessed to the nation is an obvious sign of lunacy. It’ll be called patriotism, which is only nearly the same thing and quite different in law.’ Furthermore, I think this narrative experiment by Hull, although competently done, lacks the excitement of others that he did and the ending felt a bit flat for me. However to end on a brighter note this story has a strong puzzle factor, being the most clued mystery of Hull’s that I have read and there is much information given over the course of the novel for the puzzle minded reader to contemplate.

Rating: 4/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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