Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The British Library, among other publishers, has re-released some classic and Golden-Age crime fiction that might not otherwise have gotten much of an audience. This means that new generations of readers can ‘meet’ some authors whose names may not be ‘household words,’ but whose work contributed to the genre. Let’s take a look at one of those novels today, and turn the spotlight on Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt.
The novel takes the form of a diary, within which we learn about the Powell family. Edward Powell’s parents died when he was a baby, so his Aunt Mildred has been his sole guardian all his life. He lives with her in the small Welsh town of Llwll, and he has come to resent every minute of it. For one thing, he dislikes Llwll and all of the people who live there, considering it a backwards place. And that’s not to mention the climate. For another, he and his aunt disagree about most things, and Aunt Mildred spares little as she comments on Edward’s dress, tastes, and lifestyle. Much as he wishes to, though, Edward can’t leave and move somewhere more to his liking. His aunt holds the purse strings, and must approve any decision he makes, including where he would live. And she wants him to stay in the house with her. He clings to the knowledge that, when Aunt Mildred dies, the family fortune passes to him.
One day, Aunt Mildred pushes things too far, and Edward decides that he will have to kill her. He carefully lays out his plan and gets ready to put it into action. With that begins a battle of wits between Edward and his aunt. Will he be able to get away with murdering his aunt without anyone finding out? Will his aunt learn what he plans to do and stop him? And if she does, what will that mean for that fortune he’s hoping to get?
This isn’t a traditional whodunit. Right from the beginning, we know what Edward is planning and why. And, through his diary entries, we learn the things that have driven him to the point of plotting murder. We also learn that Aunt Mildred is neither stupid nor gullible. Edward will have to think quickly and plan well if he’s going to outwit her. The suspense in the novel comes as much from that ‘cat and mouse’ conflict as from anything else.
There are several characters mentioned in the novel, but the two main characters are, of course, Edward and Aunt Mildred. And neither one is very sympathetic. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Edward is petty, self-indulgent, snobbish and contemptuous of most people. Aunt Mildred is acerbic, old-fashioned, and, in her way, quite controlling. It’s easy to see why the two don’t have a good relationship. And they are both guilty of being unkind, even cruel, to each other. Readers who like warm, sympathetic characters will notice that, as the saying goes, there isn’t much to choose between these two. And, interestingly enough, they’re more alike in some ways than either would like to admit.
That said, though, this isn’t a dark, noir sort of story. There is a great deal of wit in it. Some of that comes from Edward’s disparaging, sometimes sarcastic way of thinking. Here is the first sentence of the novel:
‘My aunt lives just outside the small (and entirely frightful) town of Llwll. That is exactly the trouble. Both ways.’
There’s also wit in the back-and-forth between Edward and his aunt. Neither is particularly pleasant, but both are intelligent and more than capable of smart rejoinders. Without spoiling the story, I can also say that there are some funny scenes. In one, for instance, Aunt Mildred tries to get Edward to walk the two miles from the house to the village, while he tries just as hard to use the car, as he hates walking.
Another important element in the novel is its rural Welsh setting. The country is beautiful, and there are good reasons that Aunt Mildred loves it there. She’s formed friendships with the people who live nearby, and with the local business owners, too, and readers see how a small community functions. Edward’s view is, of course, completely different. To him, the local people are rubes who couldn’t possibly understand what it is to read a great book, attend a symphony, and so on. And, truth be told, they’re not any fonder of him than he is of them (yet another bone of contention between him and Aunt Mildred).
Because it’s in the form of a diary, the story is told in more or less chronological order. Readers who dislike a lot of flashbacks and alternate timelines will appreciate that. Not surprisingly, the story is told in first person, mostly past tense. Readers who dislike stories told in the present tense will appreciate that.
The Murder of My Aunt is the story of two people at loggerheads, and of what happens when one of them decides to take drastic measures. It takes place in the lovely Welsh countryside, and features a couple of characters who are more than a match for each other. Oh, and did I mention the very well-written Introduction by Martin Edwards? Have you read The Murder of My Aunt? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 19 November/Tuesday, 20 November – The Murder Wall – Mari Hannah
Monday, 26 November/Tuesday, 27 November – Rumpole of the Old Bailey – John Mortimer
Monday, 3 December/Tuesday, 4 December – The Invisible Ones – Stef Penney