Edward Powell is miffed. He’s fed up of the tiny Welsh town of Lwll, on whose outskirts he lives (‘How can any reasonably minded person live in a place whose name no Christian person can pronounce?’) and he’s bored of the tedious local company. Most of all, he’s on the verge of being driven to distraction by his Aunt Mildred, with whom he lives, and who seems to exist for the sole purpose of spoiling his life. Now, if only he could find a suitably artistic way to get rid of her! In this playful instalment in the British Library Crime Classics series, the conventional structure of a murder mystery is turned on its head. As we watch the ghastly Edward bumble his way through a series of clumsy attempts at murder, the question is not ‘whodunnit?’ but ‘will-he-do-it?’ Blessed with one of the most ghastly protagonists I’ve ever encountered, and peppered with throwaway comments so pretentious they’d put Anthony Blanche to shame, Richard Hull’s 1934 novel is also one of the most entertaining Golden Age crime novels I’ve read so far.
Of course, poor Edward is doomed to suffer. How can he expect to find anyone in the remote Welsh wilderness who can understand and sympathise with his aesthete’s heart? Fortunately, he can sometimes escape to London or to stay with friends who understand his sensitive soul and share his sophisticated outlook. He has always clashed against his aunt, who has absolutely no appreciation for the finer things in life, and who has an absurd fixation on his need to walk (he is not overweight). But when their everyday squabbling culminates in some downright underhand behaviour from Aunt Mildred (hiding the spare petrol, with the intention that Edward will be forced to walk into Llwll rather than drive his cherished car La Joyeuse), Edward decides that things have gone too far. He can’t live under this tyrannical regime any more. Aunt Mildred must die! But how? And so our aesthete finds himself turning would-be murderer, as he embarks on a mission that will require extreme intelligence and guile to pull off…
The joy of the whole book is that Edward is so unbearably awful. Although it does fall into the crime sub-genre, this is really an extended joke at the expense of a character who believes himself to be utterly exquisite, but whom everyone else loves to hate. Hull has created a character of almost unparalleled preciousness, who is driven by a veritable cocktail of jealousy, spite and entitlement. Aunt Mildred has such a hold over Edward because she controls the family’s money in the aftermath of his parents’ deaths; and she (very wisely) simply won’t give him the allowance that he considers necessary to uphold a stylish life. Obviously, the idea of working is quite out of the question for Edward. He can’t possibly consider wasting his talents on:
something quite unsuited to the essential poetry of my nature, probably in Birmingham, which, with the possible exception of Wolverhampton, is, I understand, the very nastiest place in the world, sordid and commercial to an unparalleled degree.
His research into potential murder methods might well be the hardest work that this spoiled young idiot has ever undertaken. And he is not only lazy, but vindictive. His efforts to bump off his aunt prove that, of course, but he also has a persistently pusillanimous streak in almost everything he does. On croquet, he petulantly demands: ‘What are games for, except to release one’s complexes by a little flavouring of spite?‘ And there is little in life that he truly enjoys, with the exception of dandyish clothes, his little Pekingese So-So, and his French books. Heavily implied to be pornographic, these packages have become notorious at the local post-office and Edward, already riled by the injustice of living out in the sticks, feels the need to justify his tastes to us:
these things, little masterpieces though they are in their own way, are gossamer trifles that appeal not to the many-headed and, naturally neglected by the multitude, drift away down the breeze of time. I have never met a best-seller yet that I have managed to finish. It is not surprising. One’s taste is, I hope, superior to the average.
Yes, he is a magnificently awful creation. Couched in the form of his diary, the novel becomes a monologue, a one-man show, carrying us along with this deliciously delusional and self-centred narrator. Will he succeed in his nefarious schemes? I couldn’t possibly say, of course. I suggest you find a cosy armchair, a large cup of tea, and settle down to follow Edward’s endeavours for yourself. The results might surprise you.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review. I’m sorry for the terrible author photo! If anyone has a better, please let me know!