Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

There are times when only a comfort read will do, and I had a period like that at the end of May when I was suffering from a pretty vicious sinus infection. I managed to push through some Tolstoy short stories, but the Virginia Woolf houses book was a relaxing joy to read, and it seemed the logical thing after that to move on to some Golden Age crime (yes, I’m *that* behind with my reviewing….) I have a number of lovely British Library Crime Classics waiting to be read, and I was vaguely shocked to find that this one came out a year ago. Frankly, I wish I’d read it sooner; it’s an original and very wonderful take on a courtroom drama and I absolutely loved it!

Richard Hull is another of those unfairly neglected authors that BLCC are so good at bringing back into print; and Martin Edwards gives an outline of his life in his informative foreword. Hull wrote eleven crime novels, of which this is his sixth, and fascinatingly Edwards quotes a favourable review of the book by one Jorge Luis Borges. So another very good reason to read it…

Fenby felt already a strong dislike for rich men who inconsiderately purchased poison by which they themselves met their own end. It could only be called downright careless.

“Excellent Intentions” follows a trial taking place after the murder of Henry Cargate. The latter is the newly arrived ‘lord of the manor’ in the village of Scotney End, but unfortunately has not turned out to be a popular arrival. A man who’s made money by dubious methods, he shuns the locals, has his staff and all his requirements sent from London and even falls out with the local vicar. It’s hardly surprising he has no friends and family, and when he dies on the local train to Great Barwick the natural assumption is that his weak heart has given out. However, the local doctor has a suspicion which he passes on to the police; and Scotland Yard send in the unassuming but drily witty Inspector Fenby to investigate.

The mystery sounds straightforward enough (although the method is very nifty), but as well as being cleverly plotted it’s a real winner because of its rather unusual structure. Instead of a traditional linear narrative, the book opens with the beginning of the trial for Cargate’s murder and the opening speech of the prosecution. The story is then told in a series of interwoven flashbacks and scenes of investigation, which is intriguing to read and ramps up the suspense – especially as we aren’t told who the person in the dock is until very late in the book! It’s certainly a novel way to tell a story, and it really is brilliantly constructed. Everybody in the tale gets their little piece of input into the case – from the ruminations of the judge to the thoughts of the jurors, the deliberations of the various counsels as well as the opinons of Cargate’s staff and the village locals, we get to peek inside their minds and see the story from every angle.

You won’t, by the way, be able to contest the will on the ground that leaving everything of which you die possessed to the nation is an obvious sign of lunacy. It’ll be called patriotism, which is only nearly the same thing and quite different in law.

Throughout the story, the character of the deceased is in sharp focus, and he’s a strange, somewhat unpleasant man who nobody really cares about and nobody will really miss. There’s much discussion of altruistic murder, about whether somebody got Cargate out of the way for the good of everyone, which is of course a dubious moral stand to take. This even brings in a nod to the French Revolution, via a mention of Charlotte Corday! Another prominent element, oddly enough, is stamp collecting! Cargate was a philatelist and his trading with a leading stamp dealer from London throws up some suspicious behaviour and discussions of various gradings of stamps which oddly enough is never dull (mind you, I was a stamp collector for a little while in my teens… The phases we go through!)

“Excellent Intentions” is a twisty and entertaining little tale, and many of the characters do indeed have excellent intentions in the way the behave. There are, in the end, four possible suspects for the murder; though if I’m honest, the one in the dock really turns out to be the only option. The denouement is entertaining, clever and satisfying, and I ended the book with a huge smile on my face as well as being convinced that Hull is an author I want to read more of. Fortunately, the BL have put out his first novel “The Murder of My Aunt” and even more fortunately I have a copy lurking. I really could do no better than go on a BLCC binge, could I?