Reviewed by Harriet
‘From its first appearance in 1934, Richard Hull’s The Murder of my Aunt was recognised as something special in crime fiction’. So says Martin Edwards in his introduction to this recent reissue in the British Library Crime Classics series. The novel was highly praised when it first came out, and was much admired by Dorothy Sayers, who wrote enthusiastically of its ‘originality and unlikeness to anything else’. So what sort of novel is it, and what makes it so special?
The story is narrated by one Edward Powell. A young man of supreme laziness and self-centredness, he has been brought up by his Aunt Mildred, whom he despises. In fact he despises almost everything about his existence. He is financially dependent on his aunt, and he hates the quiet (and, to the reader, obviously tranquil and beautiful) area of Wales where they live. His only pleasure in life comes from his beloved dog, his fast car, and the racy novels he has sent to him from Paris. He longs for freedom from his aunt’s control but the only way that’s going to happen is if she dies. The answer, to him, is obvious. He will murder her.
And so begins a saga which is either comic or painful, depending on how it strikes you. As readers we are party to all Edward’s schemes – intensely complex and plotted down to the last detail, each one involves a different method. The first makes use of his pekinese dog So-so, who must be trained to run across the road at a certain point in order to retrieve a particular kind of biscuit of which he is extremely fond. Crucial to this plan is that Aunt Mildred’s brakes must not work, which involves some mechanical tampering on Edward’s part. Sleeping pills come into the second plan, and garden plants into the third.
I suppose that telling you that there are three plans might be a spoiler, as clearly you can tell from this that at least the first two don’t work. However, I suspect there will be few people reading this novel who don’t guess that Edward is going to be foiled. But this knowledge does not spoil the enjoyment of the novel last all – in fact it adds to it. For what this really is is a brilliant study of an abnormal psychology. We watch in delighted horror as he, with perfect equanimity, proceeds to make plans which would be totally abhorrent to a normal person:
I have been wondering if I could cause her car to catch fire while my aunt is sitting in it. It is very significant that in all my dreams (and they occur almost nightly now) it is a blazing car which is rolling down the side of the dingle. There have been cases reported in the papers where people have, or are said to have, got rid of some undesirable person and then burnt them while sitting in a car. It is however a very remarkable fact that fire does not seem to do its work properly. Only too often I notice the body is not completely burnt, and then those busybodies of police doctors come along and are able to make the most alarming and almost inconceivable deductions. I shall not therefore be so foolish as to attempt to burn my aunt’s body. Besides, this method involves as a first step the actual killing of my aunt, and I do shrink with a natural and, I think, commendable squeamishness from that actual deed. Blood is so repellent.
And so it goes on, Edward recording every change in plan and every detail of his thinking process in his secret journal. I can’t tell you what happens in the end, but there’s a twist – not absolutely astonishing but nicely done and very entertaining.
Richard Hull was a pseudonym – the writer’s name was actually Richard Henry Sampson, and he was an accountant (not a very good one, by his own account). This was his first novel and he went on to write another fourteen. Whether any of them were up to this standard we will have to wait and see – hopefully the British Library may uncover some more. In any case, this one is a great find and highly recommended.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Richard Hull, The Murder of My Aunt (British Library, 2018). 978-0712352802, 240pp., paperback.
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