The Murder of my Aunt (1934) by Richard Hull

Today’s review is a re-read for me and the re-read of book which has really stuck with me from the early days of my mystery fiction reading. Even from the author himself, this debut novel is regarded as a descendent of Francis Iles Malice Aforethought, yet I think Hull brings a great deal of his own originality. As an example of how out of the box vintage crime fiction can be, this tale does rather well. An inverted mystery, with no sleuth of any kind, yet according to Martin Edwards’ introduction, Hull’s publishers wrote that ‘the author plays the game with fair rules, but rules of his own making.’ This stayed with me during my re-read and when I came to the end I could definitely see that this was the case. Though alas I can say no more!

But before I go any further I should probably mention what the book is about, though in fairness the title does a pretty good job of that all on its own! This story is a dream for bloggers in terms of writing a synopsis for it, as the central premise is containable within a sentence. Namely, Edward Powell, financially dependent on his difficult aunt, in rural Wales, plots and schemes to bump her off. Such a simple premise, yet one which Hull does a great deal with and one which provides plenty of surprises on the first reading. It goes without saying that irony, fate and dark sardonic humour ensue.

One of the major strengths of this story is its first person narrator, Edward Powell. The New York Times has it right when they praise the book for providing a ‘completely merciless and, at the same time, amusing portrait of a perfectly worthless human being.’ Powell is never meant to be a likeable or sympathetic character, yet at times you do find yourself sharing some of his frustrations with his aunt. Additionally, as Austen has shown us, snobs can be quite entertaining characters when done right and I think Hull does a very good job in this respect. He is also quite a delight when he gets a full on rant going such as on the opening page when he talks about the advice people have given for overcoming the difficulty of pronouncing the Welsh area he lives in: ‘Another one recommends a slight click made at the back of the throat as if you were going to say “cl” but were prevented apparently by someone seizing you by the throat. All I can say is that if, whenever you are asked where you live, you seize yourself by the throat and start choking, it is apt to cause comment.’ As the story progresses it very much feels like he is trying to justify his criminal intentions, as well as build up a case against his aunt, though perhaps he should be wary of any potential cross examination… Arguably at the close of the book the reader is placed in the position of having to give a verdict of a kind, something which I did not notice on my first reading.

The aunt angle, as it were, this time round did make me think of P. G. Wodehouse and Wooster’s debacles with his own aged and domineering relatives. In some ways Hull’s novel is a darker variation on this theme, though I think even Jeeves would draw a line at having to help Powell. This might seem a completely loopy idea but I did wonder whether the aunt character herself tries to unsuccessfully “Jeeves” her nephew. Though suffice to say I was quite impressed with how well the plot is carried by these two protagonists.

So another great re-visit to an old favourite and one I would strongly recommend.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Mode of transportation

Source: Review Copy (British Library)

26 comments

  1. Thanks for the review, which helpfully clarifies for me what you would rank as the strongest novels by Richard Hull. 😀 I think I shall read this title before Keep It Quiet, with Murder Isn’t Easy being my final foray into Richard Hull, unless, of course, even more delectable titles are released. I suppose the fact that the other two titles are not inverted mysteries appeals to me – but it seems like Murder of My Aunt possesses its own twist?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As good as this book is, Murder Isn’t Easy is much better, but I wonder if the complexity of that counted against it in history’s eyes, in the same way that Marsh seemed to have outlasted, for example, Carr in the general reading populace… Just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Both this and Keep It Quiet were Green Penguins, but not sure which I’d choose of the two. But Murder Isn’t Easy was harder to find, but of course, there must have been an original reason for one being reprinted and the other not…

        Like

      • True though the KIQ green penguins were much less prolific online until recently. Even last year it was much easier to get a hold of TMOMA than KIQ. Hoping Hull’s other work gets reprinted as that is pretty scarce.

        Like

  3. It frustrates me that I was very keen to like this book and then unable to get past about page 30. I’ve put up with priggish main characters — hell, I’ve read tons of Anthony Berkeley and about 8 Gladys Mitchells — and am in no way averse to dryly comic crime fiction…but, ugh, something in this simply did not work for me. Don’t mind me, I’ll be in the corner missing out on all this fun whilst everyone else insists Freeman Wills Crofts is dull and Rupert Penny a hack; can’t love ’em all!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I found it very very dull . The final twist is interesting but it requires supreme will power not to give up the book before that. Nothing seems to be happening, it takes ages before the narrator makes up his mind to murder his aunt, ages before he tries to kill her and the portion about poison encyclopedia just goes on and on.
    More of a comedy than a mystery. Must try Murder isn’t easy next.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I think the reason why I’ve enjoyed the (four) books I’ve read so far by Hull is the author’s experiments with twists on the usual type of plot. He does have some repellent lead characters – but even Edward Powell earns a very tiny amount of sympathy, if only for that wonderful passage about the awful town where they live – spelled Llwll in Wales.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I can understand why some here would prefer Murder Isn’t Easy over The Murder of My Aunt, but, like you, enjoyed this story immensely and it required no additional willpower to reach the splendid ending. I also noticed the reader is sort of expected to give a moral verdict of the two main characters and, in my review, noted how some of my sympathies had shifted to Edward.

    Edward is still an unsympathetic, lazy and ill-mannered character, but mainly wanted to be left alone to read his awful French novels. He would never have started his murderous campaign against his aunt had she not constantly put him down and publicly humiliated him. This is what makes the ending so satisfying, because the reader can just sit back and enjoy how these characters have to deal with the consequences of their own actions.

    Anyway, I hope they hurry up with reprinting The Ghost It Was!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Kate! (I hope this isn’t a duplicate post. I’m having trouble with WordPress submissions, and am trying Google.)

    Thanks for a great review. I’ll be adding a post about The Murder of My Aunt soon; it’s one of six Richard Hull titles I have left before all fifteen are represented, and I’m about 50 pages in. Like you, I had read it very early, in my formative teenage days, and it was the book that made me want to check out all of Hull/Sampson’s experiments in crime structure decades later.

    Part of the unpalatability for some classic mystery fans may indeed be the tone and the priggish narrator, but you’re right in pointing to Wodehouse and noting that there’s a similarity when it comes to humor and landed class young loafers. Bertie Wooster is more sympathetic than Master Powell here, but I’m also struck by the fact that Hull DOES make Aunt Mildred petty and mean (if Powell’s quoting and actions of her are to be believed, such as taking pleasure in making her nephew walk to town and encouraging humiliation in front of farmer, postman, and garage attendant). So the narrator’s dislike matches our own for this antagonistic aunt character, and we’re both on Powell’s side and judgmental of him, which is a neat trick to pull off.

    All best wishes —

    Liked by 1 person

      • Keep in mind, this is pure subjective opinion, but the most enjoyable Richard Hull titles to me were Excellent Intentions and Murder Isn’t Easy (both getting deserved reprints, I believe), along with My Own Murderer (1940) and 1939’s And Death Came Too.

        Fun but flawed, I find The Ghost It Was (1936) and The Murderers of Monty (1937) well worth reading.

        The couple that I found disappointing so far were 1942’s The Unfortunate Murderer and (easily the worst of the lot, with a rambling, boring plot and disagreeable characters whose disagreeability serves no purpose) 1950’s Invitation to an Inquest. You can find all of my Hull reviews to date through this link, if you’re so inclined: https://www.jasonhalf.com/blog/category/richard-hull

        And I am constantly thanking the incredible interlibrary loan system in Ohio to connect me to the storage facilities of more than 200 colleges and universities. Ohio State University alone helped me get access to three Hull titles that would have been totally unavailable to me if I were trying to purchase them. I’ve currently got a loaned first American edition of Q. Patrick’s Murder at the Women’s City Club waiting patiently on my nightstand, so I feel quite blessed as a GAD fan!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am definitely coming to the conclusion that US inter-library loan is much better than the UK variety. Fairly sure I wouldn’t get any Hull through mine. I will have to keep my eyes open for the titles you mention, as well as go green with envy over your reviews!

        Like

  8. I was fairly sure I had commented here already but apparently not, probably at another of your Hull posts. I just (yesterday) got a copy of this book and was thrilled. Not as nice as the British Library edition, but for one dollar I will take what I get and it is a good International Polygonics copy. (I got many, many old mysteries that I am excited about reading so when I will get to them all I don’t know, but I hope this one is soon.)

    Liked by 1 person

      • So many I cannot remember them all. I got some Agatha Christie’s that I did not own, and then more that were just different editions. I got 3 by Margaret Millar. A lot of Ross Macdonald’s books, I had many of them already but in different editions, and some in collections, which are so awkward to read. I know you don’t like Chandler, does that extend to Macdonald? They lived here in Santa Barbara, so that makes their books even more attractive to me. A lot of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books, I cannot resist the covers. Some of the George Gently series. A disappointment was that I found only one John Dickson Carr, THE NINE WRONG ANSWERS. But I got a lots of his last year, so I guess that is OK. I am going back next weekend but they said the mysteries are mostly cleared out so may not find too much. Maybe a good thing.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.