"You wouldn't think, would you, one small village could have so much trouble bubbling away under the surface."- DCI Tom Barnaby (Midsomer Murders: The Killings at Badger's Drift, 1997)
Richard Henry Sampson was an author who enrolled into the British army at eighteen, serving on the French Front during World War I, after which he finally entered civilian life and began to pursue a career as an accountant, but was given an opportunity to write full-time when his first novel, The Murder of My Aunt (1934), became an unexpected success – which appeared under the penname of "Richard Hull." He would go on to write an additional fourteen crime-novels, but none of them left an impression on the genre quite like that first one.
The Murder of My Aunt was selected as one of the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones, "A Reader's List of Detective Story Cornerstones," which labeled the book "a classic of its kind" and "a shocker par excellence." The book also secured a spot on a 2003 best-of list that was compiled by the members of the Yahoo GADetection Group, which at the time was a good sample group of Western mystery readers. So this is one of those books that have always stuck with readers of crime fiction and I can see why now.
The story is told from a first-person perspective by Edward Powell, a haughty, indolent and repugnant creature, who found himself bound by his grandmother's will to his meddlesome aunt, but he loathes her as much as the place where they live – a hill-top house situated just outside the small, Welsh town of Llwll. Edwards takes the first couple of pages to berate the town, "a place whose name no Christian person can pronounce," decries the "horrible, twisting little lanes," covered with "loose jagged flints," that pass themselves off as roads and looked down his nose at the people who populate the area.
Not exactly a portrayal of a warm, kind and loving person, but Edward, for all his flaws and shortcomings, is not entirely unjustified in his dislike for everyone and everything around him.
Aunt Mildred is an affront to Edward's refined sensibilities, "a dreadful sight in country clothes" with "florid, bourgeois apple cheeks," but being a loud, uncouth plebeian would have been a forgivable offense. Not as easy to ignore is her tight clutch on the purse-strings and stubborn refusal to provide him with an adequate allowance, which prevents him from living on one of the few civilized patches on the globe – such as Paris or Rome. But what prove to be completely unforgivable to Edward are her never-ending personal remarks and the nasty tricks she loves to play on him.
You can safely say that Edward and Aunt Mildred are in a permanent state of "cold war" with each other, but on a domestic level.
In the opening parts of the book, the reader is told about one of Aunt Mildred's schemes, which appears as a fairly innocent tease to get Edward out of the house, but there were several people from the village involved and they all had a good laugh at his expense. However, Edward knew he was being played and tried to spoil some of his aunt’s fun, but this eventually led to an embarrassing scene and she told him in no uncertain terms that when "I say you are going to walk into Llwll, you ARE going to walk into Llwll." She follows this up by pointing out some of the people who had been laughing at him behind his back. So this made one thing very clear to Edward: Aunt Mildred has got to go. But that proves to be easier said than done.
The portion of the book between the opening and closing chapters is filled with Edward's diary entrants, in which gives detailed accounts of his various, often overly ingenious plots and failed attempts on the life of his aunt – some of which could have come from Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. One of the attempts even involved a "horrible infernal machine," which could have been ordered from an ACME catalogue. As he plots and plans, Edward finds several nosey people on his path who ask pesky questions and this reminded me of Leo Bruce's Case for Sergeant Beef (1947). Bruce's book is also an inverted-mystery, consisting of diary entrants, in which the narrator attempts to plot and pull-off the perfect murder, but meets similar kind of people and was not the (super!) genius he imagined. You have to wonder if Hull inspired Bruce's take on the inverted detective story.
Anyway, Edward's murderous endeavors are constantly thwarted by Murphy's Law and this, perhaps, helped in making him a slightly more sympathetic character than an aspiring murderer deserves to be. He's basically a fat, lazy and ill-mannered cat who tried to mind his own business, but constantly got yanked from the windowsill by the tail and eventually tried to strike back – which makes his failures all the more adorable. Aunt Mildred is somewhat redeemed in the final chapter and there's an acknowledgment that she should not have publicly humiliated him, but that does not entirely absolved her from all her responsibilities. She knew of his potential mental trouble, probably inherited from his late father, as well as his need for petty revenge, but nonetheless choose to keep him close to her and verbally cudgel on a daily basis.
However, Edward is still an odious character and the nature of his personality, and that of his aunt, is what makes the surprise twist at the end so satisfying. A twist that would probably have received the nodding approval of the great Pat McGerr and gave the book its status as a classic crime novel. A status that's more than deserved. I also realized The Murder of My Aunt may have founded a new sub-genre, the Amateur Murderer, which has a ton of potential, but seems to have remained largely unexplored ever since. A shame!
On a final note, I have to return to my previous blog-post, which was a review of C.H.B. Kitchin's Death of My Aunt (1929), in which I mentioned Kitchin's and Hull's book were often confused with one another. Once I began to read this book, I found it hard to believe any one could ever confuse these them, because they were very different, but then I came to the third attempted murder – which gives a possible explanation for the confusion. For his third attempt, Edward researches a number of poisons and one of his options are oxalic acid crystals. It's not a poison that turns up very often in detective stories, but Death of My Aunt happened to be one of them and Edward remarks of the writer of the article on oxalic acid had an aunt. A discreet nod and a wink at Death of My Aunt? I'll take a gamble and say it was.