For something completely different, this is the classic crime novel! Originally published in 1934, this novel from the Golden Age of Crime writing is a completely different read from most of the excellent books in the British Library Crime Classics series. I was fortunate to receive a review copy and instantly devoured this unusual book. Told in the first person, which I believe is quite rare in this sort of novel, it shows just how difficult it is to commit not only the perfect murder but one which may pass a cursory examination. It is an enjoyable and deceptively funny book, depicting a clash of lifestyles and attempted low cunning by a hopelessly inept protagonist, with a twist towards the end.
Edward Powell is a man in the wrong place in quite the wrong time, at least in his eyes. He has grown up in rural Wales under the stern eye of his Aunt Mildred, and like many literary aunts she is unable, it would seem, to see his side in any argument. There are many arguments. Edward sees himself as a fashionable aesthete, fond of French novels, well cut clothes, unusual and splendid food, and light sparkling conversation. His aunt is a sturdily practical woman, with her endeavours to maintain relationships in the local community, garden and restrict her nephew’s worst excesses. After the suspicious and unmentioned deaths of his parents, Edward has been consigned to her care and financial management. He finds nothing attractive or even satisfactory about his enforced lifestyle among the peasants (as he sees them) and boring setting of the family home, Brynmawr. After a protracted tussle over picking up a parcel of books, Edward decides that the death of his aunt is the only answer to his plight, and starts to plan and make notes accordingly. His thoughts of ‘accidental’ car crashes and detailed plans are thus presented against his continual resentment of his aunt and the local inhabitants. Each movement has an impact on his clothes, his appetite, his relationship with his aunt as she cuts down on his desires to live an elegant life, with her enigmatic threats to “take action”.
This is a crime novel without much mystery, thanks to Edward’s complete inability to successfully organise any action, and his aunt’s stubborn conviction that he is in the wrong. In his excellent introduction to the novel, Martin Edwards places the story in its context of the others books being written at the time. He points out its significance in that there is no detective, no careful plot, no collection of clues. He sees it as “a slyly entertaining read”, and that is the reason that I enjoyed it so much. It is entertaining and satirical of the affectations of a young man with few if any redeeming qualities. He refers to his car as “La Joyeuse”, his fashionable Pekinese as “So-so”, his collection of novels as his most precious possessions. He has few practical abilities and yet aims to achieve the murder of his aunt without any personal danger of discovery or prosecution. He is the opposite from most culprits who feature in the crime novels of the time in his sheer ineptitude. This is a very funny, very entertaining book which does not complicate the issues involved but just presents an enjoyable story which is recommended for the experienced classic crime reader as well as the intrigued newcomer to the genre.
After my delayed review of “Essex Serpent” this is a swift review! I genuinely read it really quickly, as I found the story so engaging. Roll on the next Richard Hull!