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.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Mode of transportation
Source: Review Copy (British Library)