By the time Conrad Carlin, representative of the Finance Board of the Ministry of Munitions, completes his report on the Anglo-British Engineering Company, a murder has already taken place. Board secretary Riches, an amiable and harmless worker, pierces his hand on a calculating machine, and immediately tetanus poisoning ensues, resulting in a particularly painful fate for the poor man. As the munitions plant is in the process of fulfilling important government contracts, the unusual death is quickly investigated.
The Unfortunate Murderer is the sixth of Richard Hull’s serio-comic mysteries I have read, and it is the first I would label as a failure. The plot, the structure, and the relative lack of humor all contribute to a fitful reading experience, and through most of it I wasn’t sure where the reader’s focus was intended to be. The story is fairly straightforward when looked at from afar: a murder takes place at a factory, and detectives look for criminal and motive. Yet Hull can’t quite decide whether the reader’s perspective should align with the outside visitor (Carlin) who observes the workaday habits of the suspects or with the inspectors, who seem even more removed and philosophical about the events (the pontificating Inspector Neill much more so than the down-to-business Inspector Abbott).
To me, the story’s fatal flaw is a structural one: once the murder of Riches is established, nothing of consequence really happens until the climactic stakeout, chase, and arrest in the factory nearly 180 pages later. The characters stay lightly busy, as Carlin starts a halting, hesitant romance with Miss Whittaker, the company’s “confidential typist”, and Abbott and Neill find the needle, which had been attached to a rubber eraser and readied with a spring. We also learn about Trench’s cruel treatment of his long-suffering wife and accountant Jefferson’s facility with math. All of this is ostensibly data to be collected and sifted while trying to identify whodunit from among the suspects, but the problem is that none of it adds up to anything, and it feels like useless information even as one encounters it. Once the story hits its early plateau, it goes nowhere until the climax. No complications occur to rattle the plot (or the reader), and the characters aren’t vivid or unique enough to engage on a more literary level.
Added to this, even a casual mystery reader will be far ahead of the plot in one respect, and the author never takes steps to surprise or subvert expectations. What the reader concludes at the start is treated as a last-chapter reveal. Hull writes within the first pages that murder victim Riches was pleasant and kindly, with no enemies known and no grudges held. Then, through the book’s entire, interminable middle section, Hull never introduces a single detail to challenge that view. Riches remains an underdrawn sketch of a character, and a motive for his death is not only hidden, it’s narratively nonexistent. With no further information offered that would connect Riches to an active plotline – even a red herring – it is clear that the benign character was not the intended victim. Hull leaves room for no other interpretation. Instead, we must wade through the bog of incidents before Inspector Neill voices this point at the story’s end.
Classic mysteries written and set during the War Years – for Great Britain, principally 1940 to 1945 – are frequently fascinating, allowing a contemporary reader a literary glimpse into an unimaginably fraught and uncertain era. While The Unfortunate Murderer, written in 1942, is set in a wartime munitions factory and its characters superficially explore the threat of wartime sabotage, it is still a nondescript tale and one that could easily be relocated to an assembly plant during peacetime with minimal plot changes. (One assumes the use of the words “Dago” and “Wop” – by confidential typist and love interest Mary Whittaker, no less – would then be curtailed.) Richard Hull’s trademark humor is also rather muted here, although comic portraits of petty tyrant Trench and the verbose Inspector Neill are among the more lively aspects of the book. A lopsided affair, this entry never quite coheres into an engaging mystery story, and that is due largely to some plotting and pacing missteps from which the unfortunate author never recovers.