I've never read anything by Richard Hull before, so when the Crime Readers' Club offered a review copy I was keen to see what I thought - I'm always on the look-out for new writers to satisfy my completist needs. A nice long list makes me very happy!
As well as a long list (fourteen books) Richard Hull supplies, in A Ghost It Was, something else that makes me happy in a writer of mysteries - humour. In his case it's not quite that slightly febrile humour that characterises Innes or Crispin but something a little more down-to-earth: his policemen are more stolid, reliable types than Sir John Appleby, for instance, even when undercover (and we won't even mention Gervase Fen!). Nonetheless, you do feel that the author's tongue is firmly lodged in his cheek at times, as each new character displays a series of unloveable traits in trying to manipulate circumstances to his own ends.
Funnily enough, I'd just been reading a book with a rather similar starting point by Gladys Mitchell, The Longer Bodies. Each begins with a rich relation who hasn't yet named an heir, and various family members trying to ingratiate themselves in order to inherit all. Mitchell's horrible Great Aunt Puddequet (what a fantastic name!) sets an athletics challenge to her nephews; here James Warrenton, who has a strictly dilettante-ish interest in spiritualism, buys a haunted house and proceeds to amuse himself by watching his family members jump through metaphorical hoops to please him. Among them is Gregory Spring-Benson, whom we meet at first trying to persuade an newspaper editor to employ him as a reporter apparently in the belief that it won't involve any actual work. He certainly doesn't intend to do any, and is staggeringly rude to absolutely everyone; his pretence that he believes in ghosts gets him into the house as a potential heir, since it amuses Warrenton to annoy the rest of the family. And then there's the pompous Arthur, who sets up an elaborate - and really rather perverse - trick to prove that there's no ghost. They really are a nasty bunch.
It's an unusual example of the genre in other ways - the police arrive late to the events, which is not so very odd (there's an Appleby one where he doesn't appear until near the end, if I remember correctly), but the denouement happens, as it were, off-stage. No showdown in the library here, although there is the required explanation of the mechanism of the murder.
Apparently Hull continued to eschew the straightforward in his novels, tending more towards the sort of "psychological" novel that became more common later. I'm intrigued to see where his experimentation took him, though I must admit that I don't often enjoy mysteries with unreliable narrators. We shall see....