Great claims can be made for this book because it starts with a very original idea. The scene is set in the trial for murder, but it soon becomes obvious that while we begin to pick up the facts of the case, we are not to find out who the accused actually is until substantially later in the book. The British Library Crime Classics series published Hull’s very unusual “Murder of My Aunt” last month; this month’s offering is equally puzzling. Is it a murder mystery, or a legal trial novel? What is the role of the police? Will it come down to the skill of the lawyers or will the truth out? This novel starts where most murder mysteries end, when the trial for the life of the accused begins. This book was originally published in 1938, in the Golden Age of Detection, when capital punishment meant a guilty verdict was literally a death sentence. So this book deals with one death, but could possibly lead to another.
This book begins with an ambitious lawyer, Anstruther Blayton, opening the prosecution of the mysterious accused. In comparison, the judge, Sir Trefusis Smith, is perhaps thinking of retirement, but his reputation for directing a jury is formidable. One of the impressive things about Hull’s writing is that you can see and hear his characters from their words and dialogue. These are not stock characters, but manage to convey what they are thinking apparently so effortlessly. When we get to the beginning of the actual description of the crime, there is humour and depth in each of the characters, especially Hardy who describes his interest in the character of Cargate. The latter is soon found to be a thoroughly unlikable man, with no obvious patience or understanding. It emerges throughout the book that he has no redeeming characteristics, and that he bullies and threatens everyone he comes across. He is no respecter of persons; the loyal and influential are all alike to him as targets for his nastiness and suspicion. Hull almost has fun creating a character who no one could like, thereby multiplying the number of possible suspects who have found themselves in the dock. He also enjoys himself with the Hardy family, who are so numerous that their occupation becomes their name. I think that the writer is playing with the reader here, adding to the confusion. The doctor tries so hard to do the right thing, but is in uncharted territory. Railway enthusiasts may enjoy the debate on the etiquette of having a body on board. There are many clues, but this is essentially a straightforward murder. The real question is the identity of the accused, and what will happen.
Technically this is an accomplished book with a lot of interest. I enjoyed reading about the characters, even if Cargate was over the line in terms of awfulness at some points. It is both a classic murder mystery and a book with a decided twist, which means that the reader must concentrate! I was very happy to receive a review copy of this latest book in the series of books, most of which I have enjoyed. This lesser known author of the Golden Age of Detection certainly wrote some good books with unusual twists, and I would hope that some more become easily available in the near future.
It is always a treat to read a new British Crime Classic, and this one is a super edition. I am reading some of the new Science Fiction classic stories that have recently come out, and am looking forward to posting a review in the near future.