In this post, I survey the darkly comic second book by Richard Hull, Keep It Quiet. Hull (the pseudonym of accountant-turned-mystery writer Richard Henry Sampson) found instant success with his clever debut The Murder of My Aunt, and wrote 14 more crime novels. In each one, he tries to find a surprising way to turn plot and structure on its ear, which is why I like him. Does Keep It Quiet succeed as an original, offbeat Golden Age mystery? Read on and find out.
Before help can be summoned, Ford learns from the cook that old Mr. Pargiter may have been the victim of a culinary oversight: due to the re-use of a bottle marked “essence of vanilla”, some perchloride of mercury may have slipped into the iced soufflé. Fearing the negative effects on the club’s reputation, cook and secretary agree to “keep it quiet,” and Ford enlists the resident doctor, Mr. Anstruther, to certify that the man died of natural causes.
Ford’s reflexive choice carries some unfortunate consequences. An anonymous blackmailer begins sending messages to Ford, forcing him to enact many changes in the ways the club is run. (The appearance of whiting on the menu and the firing of faithful waiter Hughes are two such demands.) But Ford – an intermediary who has previously showed little independence or backbone – pushes against his blackmailer’s demands and confides his situation in member and lawyer Mr. Cardonnel, who is already eagerly investigating the theft of books from the club library.
When another unlikeable and elderly member dies in the same library chair, the pressure mounts. Ford’s fate becomes entangled with those of Anstruther and Cardonnel, but can either man be trusted? Owing to his occupation, Hughes is often in a position to observe more than one may think, and with the waiter’s help Ford is able to resolve the unpleasantness and return The Whitehall Club to its former, unspectacular state.
Whether Keep It Quiet will appeal to the traditional Golden Age mystery fan depends on what the reader most wants from the genre. As a mystery puzzle, the plot is slight and Hull makes the quixotic choice to exclude almost all of the club’s members from a traditional fair-play suspect list. But I believe the author is more interested in shaping and sustaining a satiric tone, contrasting the British conception of a genteel men’s social club with the petty bickering and farcical attempts to maintain order, power, and civility. (A similar feigned hauteur-breeds-common frustration satire drives the engine of John Cleese’s excellent television series Fawlty Towers.) The idea that a witness to murder would use the situation to force improvements to his club is comical, but it is also in keeping with the world and worries that the author provides his characters. Parody also comes in the form of lawyer Cardonnel’s rather questionable deductive methods to identify the resident book thief. In a leap of logic that would make Sherlock Holmes cringe, Cardonnel states that the thief is not only married but also plays bridge with his wife:
"You see, if he has a wife, he must explain somehow how he is able to obtain so readily a supply of second-hand books, many of them having perhaps some mark identifying them with the Club. The most ready suggestion is that he buys second-hand packs of cards from the Club in the usual way, and explains the second-hand books as being a similar convenience.”
While not a complicated mystery story, Keep It Quiet provides an enjoyably comic look at the inhabitants of a city club in 1930s London, and of the many minor grudges, insecurities, tyrannies, and complaints that might lie within.