Mystery crime fiction written in the Golden Age of Murder
"This droll and inventive golden age mystery, first published in 1938, from Hull (1896-1973) offers a courtroom-based whodunit with a twist." Publishers Weekly STARRED review
'From the point of view of the nation, it's a good thing that he died.'
Great Barwick's least popular man is murdered on a train. Twelve jurors sit in court. Four suspects are identifiedbut which of them is on trial? This novel has all the makings of a classic murder mystery, but with a twist: as Attorney-General Anstruther Blayton leads the court through prosecution and defence, Inspector Fenby carries out his investigation. All this occurs while the identity of the figure in the dock is kept tantalisingly out of reach.
Excellent Intentions is a classic crime novel laced with irreverent wit, first published in 1938.
About the Author
RICHARD HULL (1896-1973) was a chartered accountant who later became a notable writer of detective novels. He is best known as the author of The Murder of My Aunt (also available as a British Library Crime Classic).
Read an Excerpt
Part I Prosecution
"May it please your lordship — members of the jury," Anstruther Blayton rose to his feet and, as was his habit, moved some papers that were near him in an unnecessary and fussy manner. At the age of fifty-two he was, he knew, comparatively young to have been selected by the Attorney-General to act as leader in a trial which was arousing a certain amount of public interest. Even though he had been known for some time as a leading K.C. on the circuit, it was his chance and he meant to make the most of it.
Fairly, of course — indeed to be anything other than scrupulously fair would not be to make the best of the opportunity — but with real efficiency and success.
He very definitely intended to show the world at large that though he was not exactly a new star in the legal firmament, for he was already quite well known at any rate to the Bench and Bar, he was a very bright constellation indeed. And, if the result must necessarily be the hanging of the prisoner, that was not his fault. After all a verdict of "guilty" would to his mind be right, and it was for the person who committed the murder to consider the consequences, before acting; they were no business of his.
He turned and faced squarely towards the Judge. Mr. Justice Smith had a considerable reputation as one who made up his mind and usually managed to induce the jury, whatever the case might be, to agree with him. It was rumoured that he was thinking of retiring which, in Blayton's opinion, would be a pity, for he understood that Sir Trefusis Smith was a competent Judge and competent Judges were not easy to get — naturally enough considering how much a really successful K.C., such as Blayton intended to be, could earn.
Perhaps Anstruther Blayton's reflections were too condescending and his expectations too sweeping. Certainly he was a long way so far from anything of the sort. Indeed the movements and the whole attitude of counsel for the Crown did not please his lordship. Blayton had seldom, during Sir Trefusis Smith's long service on the Bench, happened to appear before him — and never when it had been essential for him to consider what type of man counsel was. Now that he had to do so, he rather took a dislike to the fresh, almost ruddy-complexioned man of medium height who was visibly trying to impress him, for Sir Trefusis was quite capable of discerning at once the intentions of those who came into his Court. Besides the whole case annoyed him. It was, he had privately decided, to be his last case and he wanted, like Falstaff, to make a good end, but definitely without the traditional "babbling".
But the case before him, he suspected, was not going to provide such a curtain. It was, he had heard, likely to prove quite simple. There was very little doubt of the guilt of the prisoner, and he would much have preferred something more complicated in which his peculiar talents would have been displayed to advantage. However, if he was going to take a prejudice to counsel for the Crown, it might make things more interesting. Then he pulled himself together. He had no right to take prejudices and still less right to hear anything or form any opinion about the case before it came into Court. No one knew that elementary platitude that was invariably recited to juries better than himself, and usually he took the greatest care to turn the precept into practice. It was just bad luck that he had happened to hear rumours, portions of the Coroner's inquest, gossip — just the things he had always before avoided. With trained ability, he turned his mind into an impartial blank. He would know nothing except what was told to him in Court and he settled himself to listen, sphinx-like.
"May it please your lordship — members of the jury, on Friday, July 13th — a combination of unlucky days — Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate died in a railway train between Larkingfield and Great Barwick stations on the borders of Essex and Suffolk at approximately eleven-fifty-seven in the morning. On Thursday, August 9th the accused" — with a melodramatic gesture which threatened to arouse anew Mr. Justice Smith's latent prejudice, counsel pointed to the dock and rolled out unctuously the full name of its occupant —" was arrested and charged with wilfully murdering him by administering poison to him, and it is on that charge that the accused now stands before you. It will be my duty, in conjunction with my learned friend, Mr. Knight, to present the case for the Crown, while the defence is in the hands of my learned friends, Mr. Vernon and Mr. Oliver."
Anstruther Blayton hitched his gown up on to his shoulders. He considered that he had now found what pitch of his full, mellow voice was best suited to the Court, and he thought the moment had come for a few words of wisdom to impress the jury, combined of course with a little flattery.
"Members of the jury, you will I know give your closest and most prolonged attention to this case, not only because it is of unusual complexity, not only because murder is the gravest charge known to the law, but because of the nature of the evidence on which you will be asked to decide this case."
Blayton paused, feeling that he was doing excellently. That should put the jury at their ease and let them settle down in comfort, but in his more exalted position Sir Trefusis shuffled uneasily. He had during his life listened to a good many platitudes but on the whole he considered that those which Blayton was enunciating were about as bad as any that he had ever heard. Did he really think that any of the jury would consider murder to be a trivial charge? But, the "young" man was inexperienced at this particular work. Perhaps, he thought charitably, he was nervous, although he didn't look it. He supposed that he must go on listening quietly and not run the risk of worrying him by fidgeting unduly. He let his small, aquiline nose twitch imperceptibly. It was a relief and allowed him to go on listening.
Not that Blayton was, for the moment, taking any notice of him. He was continuing to concentrate almost entirely upon the jury.
"The crime of administering poison is not one which is carried out upon the house-tops before the public gaze of all men. It is almost invariably committed in secret and the evidence with regard to it must almost of necessity be indirect, circumstantial evidence, not that of an eye-witness.
"So it is in this case. For when Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate —"
"I have no wish to interrupt you, Mr. Blayton, but might we in future refer to the unfortunate gentleman who is deceased a little less accurately but more concisely? I am sure that the jury will not misunderstand you."
"Certainly, my lord. I believe that he was usually known as Henry Cargate."
"Very well, then. The jury will understand that by Henry Cargate you mean Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate. Perhaps even, in practice, 'the deceased' will be a sufficient description. Go on, please, Mr. Blayton."
For a moment counsel for the prosecution did not seem to know quite what point he had reached. Then he recollected and continued, trying to forgive and forget the fact that one of his best periods had been ruined.
"For when Henry Cargate died in, as I have told you, a railway train, the accused was not even present. Indeed it was unusual for Mr. Cargate to take a train at all. Such journeys as he had occasion to take, he usually performed by car, and for all that the accused knew or cared he might have met his death while actually at the wheel of a motor vehicle, and possibly in circumstances which might have endangered the lives of others utterly unconnected with the deceased or those about him."
In the dock the accused moved angrily. Whatever else might or might not be true, that was a lie. A reckless and criminal disregard of innocent, third parties — certainly not! Cargate was one thing. Almost anybody might reasonably have killed him. But this red-faced, fussy, blathering man had no right to stir up prejudice in that way.
"Members of the jury, for that reason and for others, I am going to suggest to you that this was a very wicked crime and I will return to that subject again when we consider the question of motive. But for the moment let us return to the crime itself. As chance would however have it, there was a witness present when Henry Cargate died and your attention will later on be directed to the events that then occurred. For indeed had it not happened that a certain Mr. Hardy was looking into the window of the corridor of the train at the critical moment, coupled with, let me add, his presence of mind and the courtesy and public-spirited action, combined with acumen, of the London and North Eastern Railway, this crime might never have been detected.
"Mr. Hardy will tell you ..."
Mr. Hardy indeed was burning to tell them. In fact he wanted to retail this quite exciting incident in a great deal more detail than he was likely to be permitted to do in Court. His friends, of course, would hear it in ever-growing form for years to come.
Not that he was so foolish as to regard it as the most important event in his life. On the whole that must be reserved for the building of the new oven in which for ten years past he had supplied bread to all the village of Scotney End after old Smee had decided that he was too old — at ninety-two — to bake any more. It was a very fine oven and it had added very nicely to the profits of the general shop and post-office which Hardy had already been running.
But Friday, July 13th had been an important day to him weeks before it had arrived, for on it he was to visit for the first time for many years his sister who had married and gone to live in foreign parts beyond Great Barwick. It was an expedition of considerable importance for it had been decided that it involved a journey not only to Larkingfield, itself nearly five miles away, but from there by railway. True it was only for one station, but when you are able to count on the fingers of your hands the number of times that you have done anything so adventurous as travelling by a train, it becomes a matter not to be embarked upon lightly.
He had naturally arrived at the station about half an hour too soon. You never could be sure what these railway companies might do. They did say in Scotney End that the time of the only morning train never altered, but he wasn't going to run any risks. It wasn't often that he could arrange to have a free day and, if anything went wrong, it might be another few years before he got the chance again. Accordingly he was in plenty of time to see Mr. Cargate arrive at Larkingfield Station.
He was of course perfectly well aware of who Mr. Cargate was. Nobody living in the village could fail to recognize the new owner of Scotney End Hall. Not that Hardy had many dealings with him. Mr. Cargate — it was rather a grievance of Hardy's — got everything that he possibly could down from London; even his bread was some patent stuff in tins, for Mr. Cargate suffered from a weak digestion in addition to an indifferent heart. Still, there were the members of the household to be supplied, Miss Knox Forster, his middle-aged, plain secretary, Mr. Raikes, his butler, and half a dozen others. The village had at first tried to work up a scandal about his having an unmarried secretary, but one look at Miss Knox Forster had settled that. A woman clearly capable of looking after herself and definitely more competent than attractive.
Still, Scotney End on the whole thought very little of the new owner of the hall. He was a foreigner from London, not like the old Squire, and he made no attempt to overcome the handicap. Indeed he seemed capable of thinking that the village could be improved and he was always interfering in the parish. The vicar in fact was believed strongly to resent his intrusion, but perhaps it was natural that he should dislike having as his principal parishioner one who considered his church an interesting piece of architecture, but openly professed himself an atheist. There was a rumour that Cargate wanted to pull down the vestry to see if there were not the remains of a pagan temple — Roman or some such thing — underneath.
On the whole, Hardy agreed with the vicar and the village if more for the reasons which influenced the latter. Cargate clearly did not care what happened to Scotney End. He only troubled with what happened to himself. It was all very well to mind your own business — both Scotney End and Hardy were in agreement that that was a desirable thing to do — but there was a general consensus of opinion that Cargate overdid it.
But on the morning of Friday, July 13th, the first thing which intrigued Hardy — a naturally inquisitive man — was why Cargate was going by train at all. Normally his arrivals and departures from the village were made in a large and very fast Bentley which he drove at a speed unsuited to the roads round Scotney End at least. It might be all very well when you were beyond Larkingfield and got on to the main road to Great Barwick, but not in places such as the bridge over the brook by Hurst Farm where the corner was blind and there was generally a cow in the middle of the road.
However, that was beside the point. Here was Mr. Cargate getting out of the Austin that could be hired in Larkingfield, and Hardy very properly assumed that there was something wrong with the Bentley. There was also something wrong with Mr. Cargate's temper. He was tapping his umbrella angrily on the flagstones of the platform and glancing at his watch. Then, seeing the stationmaster, he called out:
"Here, you, how much longer have I got to wait for this infernal train?"
"Due in in about two minutes, sir. We shall see her come round the corner beyond the wood any —"
"The train is already two minutes late. Can't think what's coming over railways these days. No wonder nobody ever travels by them."
Hardy had stood watching, fascinated. He had never seen Harry Benson, who as stationmaster at Larkingfield was of some local importance, talked to in such a way and even interrupted. He wondered what he would do about it. On the whole Hardy was a little disappointed. Benson only shrugged his shoulders when Cargate's back was turned. He didn't trouble to make any reply at all.
Cargate himself moved a few yards down the platform in the direction from which the train would come, apparently under the impression that that would hasten its arrival. The movement brought him quite close to Hardy so that he was able to see exactly what happened next. From his pocket Cargate took a small gold-coloured box, rather thicker than a cigarette-case, with something on the lid which sparkled — at least that is how Hardy mentally described it to himself — and, opening it, put as much of a light brown powder on to his left thumb as could be conveniently placed there. It was rather clumsily done and, in fact, a few grains fell on to the platform. Though he had never taken it, Hardy recognized from what he had been told that this must be snuff. He wanted to see what happened next and without realizing what he was doing he took a pace forward.
What happened was that he caused the porter, who was wheeling Cargate's luggage down the platform, to swerve slightly so that he just touched the left arm that was about to raise the snuff to the nose of an already irritated man. It was only the merest graze but it was sufficient to send the rest of the light brown powder on to the platform. Cargate's temper gave way at once.
"What the hell do you think you're doing? Great clumsy lout! For heaven's sake go back to looking after the pigs which are your natural companions."
"I'm sorry, sir, I'm sure, but you seemed to move in to me."
"I did nothing of the sort." It was perfectly true but there was no need for the withering contempt in Cargate's voice.
Snuff, after all, was cheap, and if he was in urgent need of its soothing influence, he had already wasted more time in abusing the porter than it would have taken to open the box and replace what had been spilt. But Cargate never had done sensible things like that. "Stationmaster! Stationmaster!" he yelled.
"What's the matter now, sir?"
"I'll trouble you not to be sarcastic to me. I shall undoubtedly report this when I get to Liverpool Street. Your train is late and you pretend that it isn't; you are thoroughly impertinent and offhand in your manner yourself, and this oaf of a porter of yours runs into me and then has the cheek to tell me that I ran into him. With a heart like mine, the sudden shock might well have been very bad for me."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Excellent Intentions"
Copyright © 1938 Richard Hull.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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