Hull was a writer I tried early on in my ongoing Golden Detective Fiction addiction, first sampling his debut work The Murder of my Aunt, an inverted mystery which turns things on its head. Eager to try more of his books I eagerly looked for them online, only to be somewhat disillusioned by the lack of availability and the sky high prices. Last year I was fortunate to track two more of his titles, Keep It Quiet and Excellent Intentions. Yet once more I was stumped, where to get my next Hull fix?
So it was a wonderful discovery that this year was set to change all of this, as not one publishing company was going to be reprinting Hull, but two! From the British Library we have The Murder of my Aunt and Excellent Intentions, both with erudite introductions by Martin Edwards, whilst from Ipso books we so far have Murder Isn’t Easy and coming up Keep It Quiet, with more titles on the way. Now 4 reprints within a couple of months is good going for any GAD fiction writer and I like how each of these reprints shows Hull trying something a little bit different with the inverted mystery format, as this was the genre he began and stayed in. Let me give you a brief guided tour of the four books on offer so far…
The Murder of My Aunt (1934)
Having read this one in my pre-blogging days I am hopefully going to be re-reading and writing about this one in more detail soon. However for the moment the following bloggers have reviewed this one: Puzzle Doctor, Aiden, Joules Barham, Steph and Erin Britton.
This is Hull’s first book, as I mentioned above, and in some ways it does rely on the earlier, ground breaking Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles. Both have a criminally minded narrator who builds up various plans to plot the downfall of others, yet of course things don’t work out like they imagined. Iles’ tale is probably the most innovative, but Hull’s book is probably more light-hearted in its humour and has strong characterisation if my memory serves me correctly. Experienced readers of inverted mystery may find this plot a little simpler, but beware, as such simplicity is deceptive and I remember being quite shocked by the ending when I read it. The readers most suited to this book are those new to Hull’s work and inverted mysteries,
What Dorothy L. Sayers had to say about it: ‘First, for its originality and unlikeness to anything else […] It is a study of unbalanced reactions to delight the heart of the psychologist; but the admirable lightness of the style, and the entire absence of pompous comment and medical jargon, keep it essentially a novel, with nothing of the treatise about it. The insensitive might even find it as funny as it appears to be on the surface, the sensitive will find it painful, but continuously interesting and exciting.’
Keep It Quiet (1935)
The complexity of Hull’s plots certainly jump up a few notches in this, his second novel. The story begins with a death involving a medical prescription getting mixed up in a London club’s cooking – deliberately or accidental? Yet as with many of Hull’s inverted mysteries it is the consequences of the death which are the most important and the most entertaining, as the club secretary is desperate to prevent any scandal. But what lengths is he prepared to go to? Crossed wires abound in this social comedy and Hull shows he is a dab hand at character psychology, making his protagonists’ actions believable. The chain of events Hull sets up are well conceived, within an amoral environment and the humour is also spot on, not being overdone or tasteless. It is unusual to find an inverted mystery which still contains a detecting strand within, all is not entirely known or confirmed. Given how much I love this book I would probably recommend it to everyone, but especially those who just want something different from their crime fiction. The Saturday Review within its The Criminal Record section, 4th January 1936, wrote that this book was a ‘delightful demonstration of how a joke may go too far. Witty, decorously exciting, and brilliantly written. – Verdict: None better. — ”
Murder Isn’t Easy (1936)
This is one I only read for the first time earlier this month and in it, Hull takes the inverted mystery to even twisty-ier and complex levels, hoodwinking the reader left, right and centre. His development of narrative voice is certainly noteworthy and this story definitely shows us all how not to enact a workplace murder.
Excellent Intentions (1938) aka Beyond Reasonable Doubt
If you love trial based mysteries then this is definitely one for you to check out, as the entire book covers the trial for the murder of Henry Cargate which takes place on a train. Yet the sneaky part of it all is that until the end of the story we do not know who is in the dock. The question of who did the deed, becomes all that compelling and intriguing. This is perhaps one of Hull’s less comic crime novels, but fans who love a good puzzle, will certainly find their metal tested. Jorge Luis Borges is also said to have admired this book and this is what The Saturday Review made of this book in 1941:
Richard Hull in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017)
Richard Hull gets a fair few mentions in Martin’s book, including a number of tantalising comments on books by Hull I haven’t read yet. However there were also comments more generally about Hull’s work, which I thought were of interest and worth sharing. Whether you’ve read one or more of Hull’s novels you’ll know that these stories focus hugely on disagreeable characters, so I found it interesting to read that, ‘Hull specialised in odious characters, and explained to the American critic Howard Haycraft that there was more to say about unpleasant people, whom he often found amusing.’ (Edwards, 2017: 214). Martin also goes on to say that ‘none of Hull’s work had a political dimension’ (Edwards, 2017: 208) and that instead ‘Hull’s stories focus on individuals rather than society at large or the class system’ (Edwards, 2017: 208). This selected focus, in my opinion, is one of the things that makes Hull such a good inverted mystery writer and Martin also says that by ‘making use of irony, unreliable narrators and tricky story structures, [Hull] explored the misadventures of the malevolent with formidable inventiveness,’ (Edwards, 2017: 208) a comment I feel sums up Hull’s work rather well. However there is one point which I disagree with made by Martin – DUN DUN DUNNNN! I know a very bold thing to say. Yet whilst Martin writes that Hull ‘arguably […] never surpassed the success of his first crime novel, The Murder of my Aunt,’ (Edwards, 2017: 208), I would say that he definitely did so with Murder Isn’t Easy and Keep It Quiet in particular. Anyone else agree? Or am I in the minority here? With all of these reprints it hopefully won’t take long to find out.
I am really pleased that Hull is getting reprinted, (if you haven’t already guessed), and I am keen to get my mitts on some of the 11 other mysteries novels Hull wrote, one of which is intriguingly called My Own Murderer (1941). I do feel a little like a child waiting for Christmas to arrive and if anyone dares to tell me that they have complete set of Hull’s works then I’ll be really mad happy for them, whilst of course tracking down their address details to pay them a little visit … when they’re not at home. Though perhaps I should learn from the various lessons criminals undergo in Hull’s books…