Tag Archives: Richard Hull

The Case Of The Monday Murders

A review of The Case of the Monday Murders by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush is one of those murder mystery writers from the so-called Golden Age who had slipped into obscurity but is undergoing a bit of a renaissance thanks to the sterling efforts of those behind Dean Street Press who have reissued the series for a modern readership to discover. The Case of the Monday Murders is the fourteenth novel in Bush’s Ludovic Travers series and was originally published in 1936.

The Detection Club was formed by the leading lights of British crime fiction in 1930. Membership was by invitation and Bush did not join until 1937, Curtis Evans’ excellent introduction informs us. Forearmed with this information it is not hard to see that Ferdinand Pole’s Murder League, a publicity seeking circle of crime writers, is a take-off of the Club and that Travers’ disdain for the League – he is now a crime writer having just published Kensington Gore – may mirror Bush’s feelings. If so, why did he change his mind? Was the novel some kind of cathartic exercise which, once out of the way, convinced him that it might not be as bad as he feared?

Bush also has the newspaper industry in his sights. The journalists at the Evening Blazon are looking for scoops and sensationalism and willing to give Pole the oxygen of publicity by printing his letter in which he claimed that thirteen unsolved murders since 1918 had been committed on a Monday. Was it the work of the same person and would there be more Monday murders? Was there something in it or was it just Pole seeking publicity for himself and his League? The journalists did not care as it made good copy and sold papers.

Pole is an interesting character and floats the idea, later pondered by Richard Hull in Excellent Intentions, of whether it was ever justifiable to kill someone whose removal would benefit society, a thought that horrify us now but one that tapped into the zeitgeist. Inevitably, an economist who had become a recluse after allegations of paedophilia surfaced, T P Luffham, is found dead in his flat, murdered, on a Monday of course. Then on the following Monday, an actress who seems to have successfully covered up her past is murdered. The finger of suspicion seems to be firmly pointed in one direction until they too are murdered, although not on a Monday.

The investigations are led by Wharton of the Yard aka The General and Travers. Their initial scepticism as to whether there is anything in the Monday murder theory gives way to absolute conviction as to the identity of the culprit. What gets them on to the right track in this tale of retribution and murky pasts is a mixture of tidbits picked up in conversations, the phenomenal and uncanny gift of recollection on the part of Palmer, Travers’ man, and the mystery of the disappearing parrot, Charlie.

More could have been made of Charlie, there are too few suspects to make it a challenging mystery and the clues to motivation are more in Travers’ head than on the page. A slip of the tongue by the culprit gives the game away and leads to a thrilling, if somewhat underpowered, denouement, provoked by Travers’ penchant for taking risks and putting himself in harm’s way, a characteristic that leads to a severing of bonhomie, soon patched up, between the stolid Wharton and the more mercurial amateur sleuth.

It is a good read, entertaining enough, with some well-drawn characters, but not one of the best of the series.        

Excellent Intentions

A review of Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Is it ever acceptable to murder someone who is so unpleasant that the world would be a better place without them? This is the subplot of Richard Hull’s intriguing, clever but ultimately slightly disappointing novel, Excellent Intentions, the second and last in his Inspector Fenby series, originally published in 1938 and reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series. Clearly the answer is no, but in a book written in the age when eugenics and worse was in vogue, the machinations of Justice Smith sees that the strict requirements of the law are met while a form of natural justice ultimately prevails.

I enjoyed Hull’s debut novel, The Murder of My Aunt, with its light-hearted style, gentle humour, and willingness to experiment with form. All of these characteristics are present in this book and what is particularly eye-catching is the way that he chooses to present the story. The structure of the book takes the form of a murder trial with the presentation of the case by the prosecution led by Anstruther Blayton, the defence, the judge’s summary, the jury’s deliberations and the verdict and its aftermath. It is only late on that the identity of who is standing in the dock, accused of the murder of Henry Cargate, who died in a railway carriage after snorting snuff laced with poison.

Interlaced within the reportage of the court case are the investigations into Cargate’s death by Inspector Fenby, the evidence provided by the suspects and their versions of events, and proofs of their statements. There are only four possible suspects, the vicar, Yockleton, a stamp dealer, McPherson, the butler, Raike, and the secretary, Joan Knox Forster, and, in truth, it is not too difficult to work out who is facing trial for their life, even before the big reveal.

Cargate is universally disliked, a rich man who has recently moved into the village to take up residence at Scotney End Hall. He delights in snubbing the village, preferring to hire staff and buy goods from outside of the locale. He is also very moody with a penchant, at least according to Raike, for playing tricks and accusing people of stealing from him.

On the day of the murder, he has an argument with the vicar over village matters, during which he accuses him of stealing the emerald from the inlay of his snuff box. In the afternoon he is visited by Macpherson, the meeting also ending in uproar as he accuses the stamp dealer of ruining his collection by replacing valuable stamps with fakes. The butler, familiar with Cargate’s moods, goes to elaborate lengths to construct an alibi for fear that he will be accused of stealing something or entering his study while he was not there, while Forster seethes with anger at Cargate’s politics.

Much hangs on the precise position of the snuff box and the bottle of poison, which Cargate had bought to destroy some wasps’ nests, both of which were in his study and both of which all of the suspects had the opportunity to tamper with when Cargate was momentarily out of the study. There is some lengthy, and sadly tedious, analysis of the possibilities – it was almost as if I was reading Wills Crofts at times – and more on the minutiae of stamp collecting, such as perforation sizes and overprinting, than I would care to know.

Each of the suspects had opportunities to mix the poison with the snuff and Fenby spends time in exploring the sightlines from the hallway into the study to test alibis. On the balance of probabilities, the right person is standing in the dock but the American alternative title to the book, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, rather gives the game away and points to the artifice in Judge Smith’s summing up which ensures that justice is seen to be and is done.

There are too many loose ends in the story for me and the motivation for murder was a bit thin. I enjoyed Hull’s novel approach to developing a murder mystery, his characterisation, and his wry sense of humour. With a stronger plot, this could have been even better.

Book Corner – November 2020 (1)

Antidote to Venom – Freeman Wills Crofts

This is another excellent Freeman Wills Crofts classic from the British Library Crime Classics series, originally published in 1938. It is another inverted detective novel where the reader knows the identity of the murderer from the outset and gets the opportunity to understand matters from their point of view, their thoughts, plans, motives and aspirations. Inevitably, though, their brilliance is not all that they thought it was and they will have made one or more fatal errors which the detective, in this case Crofts’s stalwart, Inspector French, discovers and unravels the mystery. What results is more of a howdunit than a whodunit and much of the interest lies in understanding how they messed it up.

Indeed, it is almost three-quarters into the book that French makes an appearance. He is a meticulous, painstaking detective, one who seems to enjoy the intellectual challenge of cracking a case or the thrill of the chase than bringing the felon to justice. Although we know that French will solve the case, there is a little twist at the end, which I did not see coming nor will I spoil for anyone tempted to pick the book up. The other major twist in the book, which I can allude to, is that the victim of the murder is not the person that the protagonist, George Surridge, initially set out to kill.

Surridge is director of Birmington Zoo, which, inter alia, has a noted collection of snakes. Although holding down a well-paid job, he gambles and is trapped in a loveless marriage. He picks himself up a girlfriend who worsens his financial position. All may not be lost, though, because Surridge is the sole beneficiary of the estate of an aged aunt who is keeping poor health. If only her demise could be accelerated, George’s money problems will be over.

By this time the reader expects the aunt to be the murder victim, possibly becoming a retread of Richard Hull’s The Murder of my Aunt, but no, there is a sudden and unexpected twist. She dies of natural causes and Surridge is going to get his hands on the estate without sullying his hands with any dastardly crime. He begins spending in anticipation of his new wealth, committing to buy a house for his girlfriend. The problem is that his aunt’s solicitor, Mr Capper, has misappropriated the funds and more, although he too is expecting a sizeable legacy from an elderly uncle, Professor Burnaby, who studies snakes at the zoo. If only his demise could be hastened.

The couple hatch up an ingenious plan, involving venom from a snake, to kill the uncle in a way that looks like an unfortunate accident and almost get away with it. Through an astonishing coincidence, the plot is riddled with coincidences, Inspector French is a friend of the brother of the head keeper at the zoo and hears of the incident. His interest is piqued and he sets off to Birmington to investigate and inevitably unravels the truth.   

Crofts does a fine job in ratcheting up the tension. Surridge cannot relax throughout the investigation, even though he is convinced that he cannot be implicated in the crime. He is an object of pity and fascination, a man who has lost control of his ability to shape events and his fortune, becoming a person he never thought he would ever be. And French is dogged in his pursuit of the truth, perplexed by how a snake could bite the professor fatally and then end up drowned in a barrel. It all makes for a great, entertaining read.

Book Corner – August 2020 (3)

The 12.30 from Croydon – Freeman Wills Crofts

This superb reissue, part of the British Library Crime Classics series, was originally published in 1934, and a cracking story it is too. I hadn’t read any of the full-length books of Dublin-born writer, Crofts, before but this was a beautifully crafted story and a good place to start. Although Crofts was a railway engineer by training and his stories often featured the railway, the 12.30 from Croydon referred to in the title is an air flight, from the airport there to Paris, although, because of fog, it was cut short at Beauvais.

Structurally, this book is very similar to Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt, also published in 1934, in that there is no mystery, from a reader’s perspective, anyhow, as to whodunit and the majority of the book is written from the murderer’s perspective, showing his planning of the crime, its execution and his attempts to cover it up. Unlike Hull’s book, though, where the fate of the perpetrator is not revealed until the last page, Charles Swinburn is arrested midway through the book and faces a trial for his life. There is courtroom drama as the narrative follows the twists and turns of the case, Charles’ hopes continually raised and dashed as the evidence and the legal arguments are rolled out.

Unusually, once the verdict has been passed, the focus and pace of the book changes completely and focuses on the detective acumen of Inspector Joseph French, Crofts’ principal detective. Seated comfortably in a club after dinner, French gives his audience, including Swinburn’s defence team, a blow by blow account of his meticulous investigation and the flaws in Swinburn’s planning and execution of his nefarious acts. This section invites the reader to compare and contrast the account of Swinburn’s meticulous planning and his confidence that he had thought through all of the angles. With murder, as with most things, less is more, it would seem.

The ending does sit rather oddly with the rest of the book and some have considered it to be an unnecessary addition, an attempt to bring French, who had spent the rest of the book pottering away in the background, asking strange questions and, from Swinburn’s perspective at least, being widely off the mark, back into the centre of things. I disagree, the device giving the reader a different and balancing perspective to the events hitherto seen previously through Swinburn’s perspective. I think it concludes a fine story in a satisfying style.

The story itself is straightforward. A retired industrial manufacturer, Andrew Crowther, is found dead when the plane he is travelling on lands in Beauvais. Murder is suspected by way of prussic acid secreted into one of his indigestion tablets. Prime suspects, Charles Swinburn and Peter Morley, stand to gain from the deceased’s will and both are beset with financial problems because of the economic downturn. Both applied to Crowther for loans with varying success shortly before his death. Who did it, how and what did the butler, Weatherup, see?

The book takes a little while to get going but once the tale is underway it is a page turner, well written, the plotting believable and the psychological insights into Swinburn fascinating. If you haven’t read any Crofts, this is a good place to start.

Book Corner – July 2020 (3)

The Murder of my Aunt – Richard Hull

Published in 1934 and Hull’s debut in the genre, this is a delightful romp with quite a twist on conventional murder mysteries from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction. There is no mystery as such as the reader is quite clear from the outset that the protagonists and narrator for four of the book’s five chapters, Edward Powell, is out to murder his aunt, Mildred. The tension, such as it is, centres around whether he will succeed and how.

Rusticated to the Welsh village of Llwll and forced to live with his aunt, Edward leads a miserable life, or so he thinks. He is effete, hates the countryside and all forms of exercise, indeed being forced to walk down to the village and back makes his mind up to do with her, smokes scented cigarettes, keeps a Pekinese called So-so and has a collection of risqué French novels. Mildred is a hale and hearty country figure, well imbedded into the local community, despairs of Edward’s ways and unwillingness to make his own way in the world. They are like chalk and cheese and the slightest incident in their cocooned existence is blown out of all proportions.

It is possible to read that Hull is portraying Edward as a closet homosexual, although that may just be imposing modern sensibilities on to a characterisation of an example of the effete idlers of the time but if you do think there is that subtext to the book, it makes Mildred’s suspicions that he is making a pass at one of the servants even more amusing. It is impossible to like Edward or even to have some sympathy for his plight. In Hull’s hands he is a man obsessed with his own comforts, selfish and not quite as clever as he thinks he is, the polar opposite of his formidable opponent, Mildred.

Hull’s writing is wonderful. The reader feels that they really get under the skin of the narrator but at the same time is able to spot what is really going on and how unreliable Edward is as a narrator. The book is permeated by a wry, satirical, sometimes slightly black humour and there are some laugh out loud moments as carefully wrought plans are come to naught.

The reader is brought to a halt by the abrupt change of narrator for the final section of the book. I will not say too much about that as it will spoil the denouement of the tale which is surprising and leaves the reader with a smile on their face.     

 This is a wonderful addition to the British Library Crime Classics series. If you want something slightly offbeat and funny, you will not go far wrong in picking up this gem of a book.