The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

All in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done…

It’s not often a book has me laughing out loud before I even get through the first page, but this one did! The book is narrated for the most part by Edward, taken from the journal he keeps as events unfold. It begins with his disgust at living in a place which he insists is impossible to pronounce, Llyll, – it takes him three (hilarious) paragraphs to explain how one is supposed to say it. He then describes his surroundings, not in the idyllic terms we’ve come to expect of descriptions of picturesque countryside…

I see I spoke of “sodden woods”. That was the right adjective. Never, never does it stop raining here, except in the winter when it snows. They say that is why we grow such wonderful trees here which provided the oaks from which Rodney’s and Nelson’s fleets were built. Well, no one makes ships out of wood nowadays, so that that is no longer useful, and it seems to me that one tree is much like another. I’d rather see less rain, less trees and more men and women. “Oh, Solitude, where are the charms?” Exactly so.

The title gives a broad hint, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the book is about Edward’s plan to murder his aunt. Now I’m a bit like Hercule Poirot in that I don’t approve of murder, but in Edward’s defence I have to admit that Aunt Mildred really asks for it – she finds fault with everything Edward does (with some justification), nags him constantly and is not averse to shaming him in public. All of which makes the thing far more entertaining than if she’d been a sweet old soul. This is a battle of two people who are opposites in every way except for their desire to come out on top.

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He’s also delightfully effeminate, a total contrast to rugged old Aunt Mildred who’s a hardy daughter of the soil.

Richard Hull

Written in 1934, it’s hard for modern audiences to know whether Hull intended Edward to be read as gay or just effeminate, but he would certainly be seen as stereotypically gay now, with his finicky desire to have all his clothes flamboyantly colour-matched, his eye for interior decoration, his little Pekinese dog, and so on. But if it’s deliberate, it’s done in a way that seemed to me affectionate, even though we’re supposed to laugh at him. Seeing him as gay also adds an element of humour to the fact that Aunt Mildred (who I’m quite sure has never even heard of homosexuality!) is constantly accusing him of trying to seduce the maid. I wondered if I was reading too much “gayness” into the character, so was rather pleased to read in Martin Edwards’ introduction (which of course I read as an afterword) that ‘Anthony Slide, in Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (2013) has argued that the book is “the best, and by far the most entertaining, of the early English mystery novels with a gay angle.”’ From my limited experience, I can’t argue with that!

But that’s only one aspect of Edward’s character and not the most important one. It’s his self-obsession and grouchy, distorted view of the world that makes him so enjoyable. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because the suspense element comes from not knowing whether Edward’s plans will succeed. I found it compulsively readable and while it isn’t laugh-out-loud all the way, it’s consistently funny, in a wicked, subversive way, full of lightly black humour. Loved it! One of the gems of the BL’s Crime Classics collection for me.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, British Library.

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48 thoughts on “The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

  1. This does sound great, FictionFan! Any book that can have you laughing from the first page is worth the read just on that score. And the plot does sound interesting. Edward’s character interests me, too. It’s an effective lens through which to view the world if you’re going to make commentary on it. Yes, I will definitely have to investigate this one…

    • I love when a crime book manages to be funny and have a good plot, and this one does both. There’s definite elements of farce here, but without it becoming too ridiculous. definitely one of the best of the BL classics so far… 😀

  2. Sounds very interesting! For some reason, I’m thinking of Arsenic and Old Lace because of the aunts and murders (though that story was markedly different). 😀

  3. Sounds really good. I haven’t read or heard of this author – perhaps he got stuck in a “gay literature” niche which put librarians off recommending him to teenage crime readers!

    • I don’t know – it’s not overt, he could definitely just be seen as rather effeminate, so I suspect innocent-minded contemporary readers wouldn’t even have thought anything of it. But I have another of his books from the BL, so I’ll see if a pattern emerges…

    • I know – they’re crippling my TBR, but I’m loving most of them with only a few disappointments! I have another of his too – Excellent Intentions, I think it’s called. Can’t wait!

    • Hahaha – I do hope your Powell relatives aren’t as awful as this bunch! 😉 It’s great though – so well written and just thoroughly wickedly entertaining… 😀

  4. Never heard of this one, but it sounds most interesting. And it got you laughing out loud on the first page? How cool is that! I love the passage you’ve chosen, too, with all that rain and snow. No wonder poor Edward is a bit nuts!

    • Haha – poor Edward really wasn’t a fan of rural life! It’s so funny because all the places he was writing about are places authors usually gush over and get all poetic… 😀 These British Library classics can be a bit variable, but there have been some real gems among them that more than deserve a second life…

  5. Greetings from Wales.

    Rural Wales in 1934 would certainly have been dull – you couldn’t get a drink in any pub on a Sunday for one thing (the local people would have been chapel goers and strongly opposed to drinking). And if he walked into any of the locals wearing those kinds of clothes on another day he’d have every eye on him and a lot of comments. Not that he would have understood their comments anyway because they’d all be speaking in Welsh. Lots of LL and DD combinations for him to try and mangle.

    ….

    • Hahaha – I wondered if you’d spot this review! He was very funny about Wales – Edward clearly hated it, but you could sense the author actually rather loved it. I think he did mention chapel folk in less than complimentary terms, but then he wasn’t complimentary about anyone, except his close friend Guy… 😉

    • Aw, thank you! 😀 I do love when a book makes me laugh especially when it’s not at the expense of plotting. If you do get a chance to read this one, I hope you enjoy it!

    • I really wnated to share the bit about him trying to pronounce Llyll but it was too long! Haha – I know the feeling – I seem to be on the mailing list for these BL books now and, though I love getting them, I simply can’t get through them at the speed they publish them… my poor TBR! 😉

  6. I’m pretty sure I would love this book, also Edward sounds like all teenagers nowadays, no?

    It’s interesting when you read books written this far back, and a male character comes across as ‘gay’ in our modern eyes. I always wonder if the author was doing this on purpose, or just creating an effeminate character too-would it have made their book more controversial at the time? Perhaps adding an incentive to buy it?

    • Hahaha – yes, indeed! Like Holden Caulfield but with a Welsh accent! 😉

      I know – I’m never sure with books of this age. There’s an effeminate character in one of Christie’s books too whom I’m never sure if we’re supposed to read as gay – also two women who live together and clearly love each other. But I don’t know what contemporary readers would have thought…

  7. I eagerly headed to my library’s website to see if they have this in audio book format. Can you image what someone might do with Edward’s voice? It would be a fantastic listen. Alas! My library seems to have no clue who Richard Hull is. Will you read more by Hull soon?

    • Ha – yes! Unfortunately I don’t think any of these BL Classics have been done as audiobooks – maybe they’ll do it sometime considering the unexpected success of the series. Yes, I have another of his books from the BL, and there’s a third one on my 100 Books challenge, so it’ll be interesting to see if they’re as good as this one…

  8. I love a book that makes me laugh, I’ve been meaning to mix some mysteries into my reading but often get sidetracked. You are a team Poirot fan too?! Kindred book spirit!

    • I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan – can’t go long without my fix! I love Miss Marple just as much as Poirot, though, and my cats are called Tommy & Tuppence after her other detective duo… 😀 This one would definitely make you laugh!

    • Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been having a little blog holiday! Oh, yes, this one is great fun – well worth seeking out! I hope you enjoy it if you do find time to fit it in. 😀

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