Aside from two or three titles, Hull’s work, second hand, is hard to come by, and never at a reasonable price, so I really value the reprints Agora are releasing. Hull, in the main, never settled for writing a conventional detective novel and today’s read is no different.
The book begins with conversation between Arthur Shergold and Guy Reeves, in their offices at the engineering company they are directors of. Hull pulls away from simplified notions of causality as the reader has to decide whether these two characters are discussing something which has happened or something which has yet to happen. The pair of them are mainly opposites in age and in personality. Arthur is cautious and focused, whilst Guy has a more indolent frame of mind. But back to the all-important conversation. Hull teases out over many sections the item Arthur wishes to discuss. Initially we get hints of shady dealings and of a civil servant/accountant in the Ministry, Barry Foster, who they blame for their loss of new government contracts. Barry’s faults and failings begin to mount over the succeeding pages, so it should be no surprise when his death is on the cards. Based on the conversation we have read between Arthur and Guy we seemingly have a timeline of events culminating in Barry’s demise. Yet we are taken aback when immediately after this Guy visits Scotland Yard to inform them of what he has done. Why does Guy hand himself in like that? Is he playing a cat and mouse game with the police, hoping to use his own confessions as a means of proving his innocence? Or is there something else going on?
Hull’s tale is set in April 1945 and takes place over two days, concentrating a lot of police work into a short period of time. This gives the book an odd sensation, as when you’re 20 odd pages from the end, the police are still checking out the version of events given by Guy; a plot trope which I more naturally associate with occurring earlier on in a mystery story. However, within the wider sense of the book, this structural device fits, as the plot unfolds from Guy’s confession.
WW2 is still ongoing and the effects it had on everyday life make their way into the narrative. At the forefront is Guy, who has been invalided out of the army, having lost three fingers from his left hand. Yet Guy is not set up as a figure of sympathy, as we are soon told that his disability is ‘more a convenience […] than a handicap’ to him, using it for his own ends.
During the war Hull worked for the Admiralty as an auditor, which he continued to do until 1958. I wonder whether his time working there was the source for the satire in this book as the “Ministry” becomes a primary focal point for the humour in this story. A good example of this is when the police ring them up to inform them of Barry’s death:
“Establishments Branch speaking.” The voice sounded quite live at first.
“Scotland Yard here.” (Well, if the Ministry liked to talk that way, he could do it too.)
“Oh, yes?” There was a gentle implication that the Ministry had heard of the Yard.
“You employ a Mr Foster – a Mr Barry Foster.”
“Very possibly. We employ quite a lot of people, you know.”
“We have reason to think – but I am instructed to ask you to keep this matter to yourself if you would be so good – that he was murdered this afternoon. At any rate he is dead.”
“Really?” Establishments Branch was quite unruffled. Apparently, members of the staff of the Ministry were murdered frequently, especially in the afternoon. “Foster, did you say? I must put his name in the appointments list.”
“Appointments?” It did not seem to Troughton that many more appointments were likely to go the way of Barry Foster.
“Yes. But with a note ‘deceased’ beside the name. We usually abbreviate it. That is so that the vacancy can be filled if necessary. They may decide not to, of course, as it is so late in the war – the European war, I should say.”
Although Guy sees himself as the star of the tale and is portrayed as a self-dramatist the narrative spends more time with the investigating officers, Mr Pennington; from the Ministry and Cynthia Trent; a secretary at the engineering company. Cynthia nominally occupies the role of the love interest, yet I don’t think this is due to poor writing on Hull’s part. It seems a little more intentional than that. Cynthia is not quite the hapless heroine and is well aware of Guy’s faults. In some ways I think Cynthia is designed to be a bit of a red herring, but if the plot had been expanded and developed further, she may have gone on to have an even more encompassing and interesting role. Perhaps the compact nature of the plot meant it was better for a short story than a novel.
If you’ve read Murder Isn’t Easy or Keep It Quiet, then unfortunately I don’t think this ending reaches the heights of those earlier titles. Despite being a shorter book, the plot it still a bit too small for the space and I think the conclusion in its most essential part is a little predictable. The element which should be a bit more surprising is undermined by ambiguous writing and relies on a psychological component which I don’t feel is grounded enough to fit. Character psychological has played a large role in other novels by Hull, in fact some narratives have completely hinged upon it, yet in those cases I think it was developed sufficiently to work more effectively.
If you haven’t read anything by Hull before then I would seek out of his earlier works. Agora have reprinted Murder Isn’t Easy, The Ghost It Was, And Death came Too and Keep It Quiet. The first and last ones in this list are the best, in my opinion. You can also access two other Hull titles from the British Library Crime Classics series: The Murder of my Aunt and Excellent Intentions. Hull, as a writer, was inherently an experimentalist and is one of the reasons I am drawn to his work. Some of these experiments provide dazzling results, whilst others are not as successful.
Source: Review Copy (Agora Books via Netgalley)
Calendar of Crime: April (4) Easter