Friday 5 April 2013

Forgotten Book - Murder of My Aunt

Murder of My Aunt was the debut novel of Richard Hull, and is my Forgotten Book for today. Published in 1934, it was extremely successful - in fact, Hull struggled in a writing career that stretched for almost twenty years to match it. Arguably, Excellent Intentions and My Own Murderer were better books, but the ironic wit and cleverness of his debut were what made it stand out. The trouble, as far as a modern reader is concerned, is the key plot twist is foreseeable. How much that matters depends on how much you enjoy Hull's style of writing.

I'm one of those who do. Hull was working, very clearly, in the same vein as Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles, and I do find those stories that play ironically with the reader's expectations to be very entertaining, provided one makes allowances for the passage of time. This is one of those relatively uncommon crime novels set in a remote part of mid-Wales. The narrator, Edward Powell, is a fat and unpleasant idler who is forced by circumstance to live with his Aunt Mildred, whom he hates, at her house on the outskirts of Llwll.

Edward decides that he needs to do away with Mildred, and the book recounts his various attempts to achieve his ambition. There is some degree of uncertainty in his characterisation - he is effeminate, but not above trying in vain to seduce a maid - but his loathsome selfishnes is consistent throughout. So one does not identify with him in the way that some readers may, possibly, identify with Dr Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles. That's a weakness in the story, I think, but by no means fatal to enjoyment.

Over the years, I've managed to track down all the Hull books, and it's fair to say that they are a mixed bag. I go along with the general view that his post-war work was largely sub-standard, and his career petered out in the early 50s. Yet at his best, he was capable of coming up with interesting and amusing story-lines, and this book offers a good example. The fact that his idea has been re-used so many times since means that it's not easy to imagine how fresh it may have seemed in 1934. But it's a book that I enjoyed re-reading, even though I knew what was going to happen.

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