The Ghost It Was by Richard Hull – #RIPXV

I’ve enjoyed several of Richard Hull’s novels over the last few years – particularly The Murder of My Aunt and Left-Handed Death – and with Halloween quickly approaching, The Ghost It Was (first published in 1936) sounded like a good one to read next.

The novel begins with aspiring journalist Gregory Spring-Benson trying to get a job as a newspaper reporter. Having failed to impress the editor, Gregory is given new hope when he comes across a badly written article about James Warrenton’s purchase of the supposedly haunted Amberhurst Place. James Warrenton happens to be his uncle – his very rich uncle – and perhaps if Gregory goes to visit him in his new home he will be able to gather material for a much more interesting article that will help to launch his career in journalism. If he can also persuade Uncle James to leave him as much money as possible in his will, even better!

On his arrival, however, Gregory finds that he is not the only one hoping to secure his inheritance; three other nephews and a niece have also descended upon the house in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their uncle. But while the cousins are busy plotting and scheming against each other, the ghost of Amberhurst Place makes an appearance at the top of a tower. Deaths soon follow, but is the ghost responsible or is there a human culprit?

Although all of the books I’ve read by Richard Hull so far have been very different, unlikeable characters seem to be the one thing they have in common! This worked very well in The Murder of My Aunt, where the characters were so horrible they were funny, but in this book they are just thoroughly unpleasant and not much fun to spend time with at all. I could easily have believed that almost any of them was the murderer and didn’t really care which of them was. It didn’t help that after a strong opening, introducing us to Gregory Spring-Benson and describing his ordeals at the newspaper office, the narrative then jumps around between the other cousins, the butler, a clergyman and some Scotland Yard investigators. We barely see Gregory after this and I felt that the novel lost focus through trying to involve too many different characters at once.

The ghost story aspect of the novel is well done – not at all scary, but it adds some atmosphere and makes it more difficult to work out exactly how the murders are being carried out. Despite the unpleasant characters and the lack of focus I’ve mentioned, it’s quite an enjoyable mystery to try to solve and the denouement, when it comes, is unusual and unexpected. Instead of tying everything up for the reader, Hull leaves us to make up our own minds and to decide whether we’ve correctly interpreted what we have been told. Not a favourite Hull novel, then, but still worth reading and I will continue to explore his other books.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is my second book read for this year’s R.I.P. Challenge.

Left-Handed Death by Richard Hull

I loved Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt – it was one of the best books I read last year – but when I tried another of his classic crime novels, And Death Came Too, I was disappointed to find that it was a much more conventional murder mystery without the humour and originality I had expected based on my first experience. Left-Handed Death is my third Hull novel and I’m pleased to report that it’s another good one – not in the same class as The Murder of My Aunt, but much better than And Death Came Too.

This book was published in 1946, but is set slightly earlier, just before the end of World War II. It begins with Guy Reeves, one of the two directors of the Shergold Engineering Company, returning to his office after lunch and making a shocking confession to his co-director, Arthur Shergold: he has just murdered Barry Foster, a civil servant who has been investigating the company’s finances. Foster may have been on the point of revealing corruption within the company, something which matters to the Ministry he works for because the Shergold Company have been supplying government contracts throughout the war.

Reeves describes his actions of the afternoon to his partner, finishing with a detailed account of how he carried out the murder, then he heads to Scotland Yard where he repeats his confession to the police. Inspector Hardwick doesn’t believe him – why would somebody voluntarily admit to murder? – but he sends his men to Foster’s home where they discover that Foster is indeed dead and that it’s entirely possible that the murder could have taken place exactly as Reeves has described it. There seems little reason to investigate further, but Hardwick still has his doubts and sets out to prove that Reeves is innocent.

All of this happens in the first chapter of the book and I was immediately intrigued. Why would Reeves confess to a murder that he hadn’t committed? On the other hand, why would he confess to a murder that he had committed? And if he didn’t kill Foster, then who did? As Inspector Hardwick himself points out:

“I like my murders to start at the beginning with the corpse and go on to the end with the conviction. But when you start in the middle with the confession – well, all I can say is that it’s all wrong!”

As I continued to read, I started to form my own theory about what was happening and I was able to predict the solution before it was revealed, but I still enjoyed watching Hardwick and his fellow detectives sorting through the clues, looking for alibis, speaking to witnesses and gathering medical evidence. I thought the ending did let the rest of the book down slightly, though – surely there was room for one or two more twists!

As well as being an entertaining murder mystery, I found this book interesting because of the time period in which it is set. The story takes place right at the end of the war and that has an impact on the lives of the characters and on just about everything that happens in the novel. Guy Reeves’ description of the lavish meal he and Foster ate on the day of the murder, for example, provokes disapproval at a time when rationing is in place; the war makes it difficult to get hold of a doctor to examine the murdered man; Cynthia Trent, who works as a secretary at the Shergold Company, takes a walk in the countryside past an Italian prisoner-of-war camp; and Reeves himself has suffered an injury while serving in the army which has implications for the way in which the murder is carried out.

I will continue to read Richard Hull’s books in the hope that the others will be at least as good as this one, if not as good as The Murder of My Aunt. I suspect I probably started with his best book, but that doesn’t mean the others aren’t worth reading!

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

And Death Came Too by Richard Hull

Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt was one of my favourite books read in 2018; I loved the humour, the narrative voice and the clever plot twists and couldn’t wait to read more of the author’s classic crime novels. The one I chose next was And Death Came Too, which has recently been reissued by Agora Books.

First published in 1939, the novel gets off to a very intriguing start, introducing us to four friends who are attending a series of charity balls at Trevenant Hall when they receive an invitation from a neighbour, Arthur Yeldham, who has recently moved into nearby Y Bryn House. The four – Martin Hands and his sister Patricia; Patricia’s fiancé Gerald Lansley; and a friend, Barbara Carmichael – don’t really want to go, but reluctantly accept and set off together for Y Bryn.

On their arrival, they are surprised to find that there is no sign of their host. Instead, there are two strangers sitting at the table: a man playing a game of solitaire who says his name is Mr Salter, and a mysterious woman whose name nobody knows. As you can imagine, the conversation is extremely awkward, especially when the unknown woman suddenly stands up and leaves with no explanation. Next, a police constable enters the room and helps himself to a drink before announcing that there has been a murder: Arthur Yeldham has been found dead in his study but no weapon has been found and the time of death is unclear. With at least six suspects to choose from – and a range of clues which could point the way to the truth or be complete red herrings – it’s not going to be an easy mystery to solve.

At this point I was anticipating another unusual and original novel like The Murder of My Aunt, but apart from the fascinating opening scenes this was a much more conventional detective story. I still enjoyed following the investigations and sorting through the clues, but in the second half of the novel it became quite obvious who the murderer was and I wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. The ending was very abrupt as well; the story just seemed to end in the middle of a conversation!

The main characters in the novel – the four friends and the two strangers they encounter at Yeldham’s house – have interesting backgrounds and motives, although none of the six are very likeable. We don’t see any of them getting very involved in amateur investigations – all of that is left to the police, and one element of the book which I did find slightly unusual is that we meet so many different policemen! There are several of them, some local and some from Scotland Yard, of different positions and ranks, all working on separate aspects of the crime. The competition and rivalry between them added another layer of interest to the novel, although on the other hand I think I prefer having just one or two detectives to follow and get to know.

This is a perfectly good, solid murder mystery novel, but I was slightly disappointed with it because, based on my previous experience of Richard Hull, I had hoped for something more imaginative. I will probably still try one or two more of his books. I like the sound of The Ghost It Was and Keep It Quiet, also from Agora Books. Has anyone read either of those – or any other Richard Hull novels?

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

I haven’t read as many of the British Library Crime Classics as a lot of the other bloggers I follow, but of the few that I have read this one is the best so far. It’s not really a whodunnit so there’s no puzzle to solve or clues to decipher, but that doesn’t matter at all – the fun is in wondering whether the crime described in the novel will succeed and, if so, whether the culprit will be caught.

Our narrator, Edward Powell, is a self-obsessed, miserable and bitter young man who lives with his Aunt Mildred in a small Welsh village with a name (Llwll) he finds impossible to pronounce. With his little Pekingese dog and love of French novels, Edward feels out of place in Llwll and longs to move to somewhere more lively and fashionable. Unfortunately, being financially dependent on his aunt, it seems that he will have to stay where he is for now…unless he can think of another solution.

Given the title of the book, I’m sure you will have guessed what Edward’s solution is! Now, under normal circumstances I would be horrified at the thought of somebody plotting to murder his aunt, but I did have some sympathy for Edward as Aunt Mildred is portrayed as such a thoroughly unpleasant woman. She constantly criticises him, complains about everything he says or does, and goes to great lengths to make him look stupid in front of the entire village. Had Edward been a nicer person I could almost have given him my support, but he is no more likeable than she is – he’s lazy, selfish, and believes he is much cleverer than he actually is. Needless to say, the murder of his aunt proves to be more difficult than he expected!

Will Edward’s plans succeed? Obviously, I’m not going to tell you and will leave you to enjoy the story for yourself, but what I will say is that things don’t go smoothly and there are plenty of twists and turns before we reach the end. But the plot is only part of what makes this book so enjoyable; Edward’s narrative voice is wonderful too and transforms what could have been a very dark novel into a very funny one. From the beginning, when he spends the whole of the first page trying to explain how to pronounce Llwll, there is a strong thread of humour running throughout the entire story which is why, despite Edward and his aunt being such unlikeable people, their battle of wits is so entertaining to read.

As well as being funny, there’s also a sense that Edward’s narration could be unreliable. Is he correctly interpreting people and situations? Is Aunt Mildred really as horrible as he thinks she is or is his own negative view of the world distorting the way he sees her? Although this isn’t a mystery in the conventional sense, there’s still plenty of suspense as we wonder whether our questions will be answered, and when – and how – the murder of Edward’s aunt will take place.

The Murder of My Aunt was Richard Hull’s first novel, published in 1934. Having enjoyed it so much, I am looking forward to reading more of his books. Excellent Intentions is also a British Library Crime Classic, while a few others have been reissued by Agora Books. Have you read any of them?