(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Richard Hull claims that his mysteries are imitative of the crime novels of Anthony Berkeley, particularly of Malice Aforethought: The Story of a Commonplace Crime (1931). They are indeed so in their reliance on a first-person narrator, their focus on the motives and mind of the murderer (the most villainous of whom shares the author’s name), and their deadly wit. In many ways, however, his work has much more in common with the novels of Jim Thompson or Patricia Highsmith, though his is a British version of these writers’ special brand of nastiness. At their best, Hull’s works are unique. They draw the reader into their own amoral world of plots and counterplots, utilizing an intimate diary-confessional form whereby the villain talks directly and intimately to the reader, making the unreasonable sound reasonable and the murderous seem necessary.

The variation of point of view within the novels is skillfully handled. Hull excels at having his narrator report one person’s story or reactions and then present the totally opposite position of another, giving the reader a strong sense of the self-delusions by which humans exist and of the difficulty of determining truth as events are filtered through a number of complex, conniving minds. The Murder of My Aunt is a tour de force at reversing perspectives, with the bulk of the novel from the point of view of the murderous nephew and the final chapter from the point of view of the aunt, the intended victim. My Own Murderer (1940) repeatedly provides multiple interpretations of the same action, interpretations that reveal the prejudices, obsessions, and values or lack of values of the various characters involved. Hull continually plays with the reader’s perceptions, a fact that is evident from his titles. Several of the titles seem clear in their intent as one begins the work but take on a different meaning and texture as one concludes the book and realizes that the pronoun or the possessive has a second sense that fits the situation far more aptly than the more common meaning. Only in The Ghost It Was (1936) does Hull vary his narrative form, relying uncharacteristically and not so successfully on a third-person narrative.

In Hull’s novels, there is no focus on clues, suspicions, or police procedures. When a police inspector or an amateur detective does appear, he is a peripheral figure, described in greatest detail only in the final chapter or chapters. He guesses about character and motive; although the narrator thinks that he understands far more fully than the detective possibly could, the irony of the ending is that the narrator (and the reader, who has shared his perceptions), is shown to have been partially, if not totally, wrong all along. Typical of Hull’s distinctive manner is The Ghost It Was, wherein the detective enters the case solely to clear a ghost of a murder charge, and in an unexpected switch, the butler is a legitimate suspect. In most Hull mysteries there are no interviews of witnesses, and often there is no traditional suspense, in that the reader knows from the beginning who committed the first murder or who is attempting murder and why. There are often multiple murders, but each one is committed by a different murderer, with the motives for the second or third murder growing out of and interlocked with the first. The pleasure comes from the mental vagaries of the narrator, from his rational irrationality, from his self-revelations and prejudices, and ultimately from a final twist in which perspectives are reversed and the best-laid plans go awry.

Hull explores the total absence of guilt in his characters, who are highly individualistic and with pretensions to education, artistic sensibilities, or wisdom above their fellows, but who have all failed in the real world in some way: financially, socially, or morally. For them, others are but insects to be crushed, and those who would disapprove are maudlin sentimentalists. Hull’s narrator, however, nevertheless appeals to the reader’s sympathies, explaining the reasons for his unrest, distrust, or distress to show himself in the best light: as a person put on, taken advantage of, or abused in some way by others, who, as a result, seem from his jaundiced perspective to deserve death. Typical is the narrator of My Own Murderer: When a friend in need, though uninvited, thanks him for an egg, he informs the reader, “It was preposterous. I hadn’t let him have it. He’d taken it as if it was Czecho-Slovakia, and nothing short of violence, which anyhow was impracticable, could have saved it.” Later he confides,When Mrs. Kilner had been explaining, apparently extremely inaccurately, her desire to humiliate Alan Renwick, to have him in her power and then make him feel it, to make him crawl to her and eat humble pie, I had understood exactly what she meant. I had never had the chance to do that to any human being and I should particularly enjoy doing it to Alan, although from many angles I quite liked him.

Still later, he admits that he would have dearly liked to have been Alan’s dentist, “only that dentists in the end relieve pain.”

Such characters tamper with car brakes, start fires, experiment with garden poisons, put morphine in drinks, and send friends or relatives to painful deaths without a second thought, indeed with resentment at the trouble the...

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