Today’s read only came to my attention a couple of days ago, (thanks Jamie!), as I wasn’t aware this title was in the offing for reprinting. It is Hull’s 7th novel and good luck finding a second hand copy! Agora’s reprinting of the book has therefore helpfully brought this story back into circulation and I look forward to seeing what other Hull titles they release this year.
The tale begins at a ball at Trevenant Hall. There have been three balls held one after the other, all for differing organisations. It is night three and Gerald Lansley and Martin Hands are certainly feeling it. Lansley’s fiancée, who is also Martin’s brother, Patricia Hands, is in her element though. As it is approaching midnight they, (including Patricia’s friend Barbara Carmichael), decide to take up Arthur Yeldham’s offer to visit his home Y Bryn, since he is new to the area and keeping an open house every night the balls have been taking place. Not everyone is keen to go, but they are certainly all wrong footed when they meet two other guests of Yeldham’s in his drawing room: the peculiar Mr Salter and a mysterious woman who nobody knows the name of and who seems severely disinclined towards conversation. Just as the conversation is reaching an excruciating level of awkwardness a constable enters the melee, who fires off random questions, before going to telephone. Our mysterious lady leaves and as the tension mounts, odd remarks here, a badly timed joke there, we the reader know what is about to be unfurled at the five remaining guests by the policeman: the murder of Arthur Yeldham! No weapon has been found but he has been murdered in the study. Aside from the five remaining suspects there is of course the missing woman. The timing of the murder has been obscured by an electric heater and there are a host of unusual clues: a legal text book, a stained shirt and a car with extra miles on the clock, amongst others. But who did the deed?
Out of the five novels I have now read by Hull, this one has the most conventional detective story structure, as by and large Hull was always one to do things differently. I’m not sure Hull is at his most comfortable with the conventional, but I think this only becomes apparent in the final third of the book where the killer’s identity is quite noticeable, despite some very well-thought out and different motives for the murder, and the ending is somewhat limp, (in comparison to Murder Isn’t Easy), and even more bizarrely cuts off mid-conversation.
However this book still contains many of the strengths we see in Hull’s other works. There is his delightful manner of describing people:
‘Detective Sergeant Scoresby, though only one man, had the additional disadvantage of taking up the room of two, with bushy, beetling black eyebrows that were almost enough for three.’
… which often brings a smile to the reader’s face. He also of course has a good handle on social comedy, in particular with the difference between what is said and what is implied in conversation:
‘Patricia turned to the woman, and managed to murmur “Good evening,” with her lips, although she felt that her whole expression was saying: ‘Why aren’t you wearing evening clothes?’
… and this humour continues into what the characters reveal about themselves when they talk. One of my favourite lines is when Patricia has given an extensive list of the clothes the mysterious woman was wearing, yet stumbles on the detective’s next question, ‘And her face? I mean, what did she look like herself?’ To which she can only reply, ‘I didn’t really notice. She was a blonde. Ineffective looking, I thought.’ So very often what we say about others often says something about ourselves, which is what happens a lot in this book. Yet Hull has always been a dab hand at effectively introducing characters in a short space of time, sometimes setting up expectations which are then reversed later on.
One way Hull perhaps diverges from reader expectations is in eschewing the inclusion of amateur sleuthing in the story. In fact the four suspects who arrived at Yeldham’s house together, grow further apart rather than closer together. The murder has put a wedge between them all. The way they start to turn on each other is particularly well-achieved, as it certainly added to the psychological tension of the piece. Moreover, unusual for Hull at least, we spend a lot of time in the narrative with the police and their investigation into the murder. Again Hull exercises his forte in depicting character group dynamics, exploiting effectively the tension, grudges and jealousies between the policemen of different ranks. A lot of humour slips into these passages and their disagreements with one another frequently effect the investigation’s progress. We also have the added zest of having a policeman, the first constable, who cannot be fully trusted due to his odd behaviour at the crime scene.
Perhaps this is not Hull’s best novel, (I strongly recommend reading Murder Isn’t Easy), but it still has a lot to offer readers and is overall an easy, quick and entertaining read.
This edition also includes the opening pages another title by Hull called Left-Handed Death, which makes me think this might be the next Hull title coming up.
Source: Review Copy (Agora Books via Netgalley)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Any outdoor Location
Calendar of Crime: August (3) Primary action takes place in this month