The Murder of My Aunt: A British Library Crime Classic

The Murder of My Aunt: A British Library Crime Classic

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY MARTIN EDWARDS Edward Powell lives with his Aunt Mildred in the Welsh town of Llwll. His aunt thinks Llwll an idyllic place to live, but Edward ...

About The Author

Richard Hull

RICHARD HULL (1896-1973) was a chartered accountant who later became a notable writer of detective novels. The Murder of My ...

Read an Excerpt

 

I

One Hot Afternoon

 

 

 

1

My aunt lives just outside the small (and entirely frightful) town of Llwll. That is exactly the trouble. Both ways.

How can any reasonably minded person live in a place whose name no Christian person can pronounce? And I do maintain that “Llwll” is impossible. One would like to begin at the beginning, but with Llwll you don’t. You have to begin just before the beginning, which is ridiculous. One writer tells me that “ll” at the beginning of a word is pronounced like “thl” with the “t” partially left out—a guide which is quite useless and impracticable. Another one recommends a slight click made at the back of the throat as if you were going to say “cl” but were prevented apparently by someone seizing you by the throat. All I can say is that if, whenever you are asked where you live, you seize yourself by the throat and start choking, it is apt to cause comment.

But even if you do start to say the word, you still have difficulty in going on. It is of course not a “w”, it is more like a double “o”, but with a slight trace of a “u”! The exclamation mark is mine, the author apparently thinking his sentence in need of no such qualification. However, having clutched your throat and spluttered slightly, you may then tackle the final “ll”, and here at any rate is certainty. It is pronounced “lth”. What a business for a word of five letters!

For myself, I usually pronounce it Filth. It describes the place.

Llwlll—no, on a recount Llwll—I need hardly say, is in Wales. Quite a lot of people guess that straight off. And a more horrible place I have never seen. It is amazing to me how many people admire the Welsh scenery; indeed, I am always being told how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful country-side. I cannot imagine what they see in it. Nothing but silly little hills, very fatiguing to walk up and instantly going down again, sodden damp woods, out of which, if I do try to exercise my dog in them, I am instantly chased by some keeper who says I am doing harm to his beastly pheasants and stupid little grass meadows. Ugh! how it bores me. Give me Surrey every time.

And the roads. Horrible, twisting little lanes, mostly covered with loose jagged flints, and often with steep banks so that one can see nothing but the hedgerows of brambles and wild roses and other such things, all with sharp thorns, as you find if you try to break through the fence, and I might add that if I do manage to make a gap, some officious person always fills it up with barbed wire. But if by any chance one is spared this prison-like bank and fence, what does one see? Why, the same thing every time. Miles and miles of hills and woods, all looking exactly the same. No man has ever taken this meaningless jumble created by nature and made anything of it. It wants forming.

But to go back to the roads. There isn’t a stretch anywhere in the whole country-side where I can drive my car at a decent pace. Think of that! I don’t suppose that any car has ever been over thirty-five in the whole country. What a feeling of relief it gives me when I can leave it all behind and get on to Watling Street and can really let myself go with the straight road stretching away to the horizon, none of these wretched hills, and a good surface beneath me instead of these awful Llwll roads, repaired by putting down a very little tar and a very large number of sharp stones about the size of a hen’s egg, and leaving such traffic as there is to roll them in, a process which takes several years.

As I look back at what I have written in order to relieve my mind of what I feel of this awful place, I see I spoke of “sodden woods”. That was the right adjective. Never, never does it stop raining here, except in the winter when it snows. They say that is why we grow such wonderful trees here which provided the oaks from which Rodney’s and Nelson’s fleet were built. Well, no one makes ships out of wood nowadays, so that that is no longer useful, and it seems to me that one tree is much like another. I’d rather see less rain, less trees and more men and women. “Oh, Solitude, where are the charms?” Exactly so. I had much rather be rocked with alarms than dwell in this desolate place.

Trees and rivers; rivers and trees. There must be thousands of trees to every human being round here, and I should think that in a twenty-mile radius from here there must be more trout than men. And of all the tedious people, commend me to those who like trout—to catch, I mean, not to eat. Truite meunière is excellent—they do it best at Ciro’s to my mind—but truite meunerie, or the miller’s mode of beating the water with a flail for trout, is tiresome beyond words. The pun is apposite if a little far-fetched.

But though there seem to be some people, curious people to my way of thinking, or perhaps merely ignorant people who do not know the district, who seem to like the country-side, there surely can be no one who likes Llwll. There isn’t anything really to be said for it. There really is very little to be said about it. It is just a collection of ugly red-brick houses, all very like each other and mostly in none too good a state of repair, with the inevitable river running down the middle of it, lying in a hole amongst the hills, all of which are exactly like each other, with a stone church on a mound on one side and several nonconformist chapels dotted about it. I have never discovered quite how many of these chapels there are. Indeed, I am always finding a fresh one, belonging apparently to a different sect, or should one say, a different religion? I don’t know.

There is a high street. It has a post office, from which the letters are occasionally delivered and occasionally not—some grocers, dealing almost entirely in tinned food of the most elementary and obvious kind at fifty per cent more than the proper price; and some butchers, selling mainly New Zealand lamb, Danish bacon, and Argentine beef, which is ridiculous in a country-side which, whatever its defects, is full of sheep—peculiarly stupid sheep—and very inquisitive pigs. However, what are you to expect with a government such as we have at present, though really I take so little interest in these things that I am not quite sure what kind of a government we have just now. However, the inhabitants of Llwll continue to buy tinned salmon and tinned apricots for a treat, and economize in order to do so by eating frozen meat and margarine while the neighbouring farmer—but let us not talk of farmers.

There is a cinema. Not that I ever wish to go to a moving-picture entertainment; vulgar, common, unrefined things with slapdash business and horseplay taking the place of refined wit, with sticky slabs of sentiment made to do duty as a plot, with no artistic composition in their technique, no facing up to the problems of life, no new, no original thought or conception in them. Who ever heard of a film play by Wilde, or Pirandello, or Tchekhov? The idea is ridiculous.

But even if I did want to go to such an entertainment, I could not consent to be seen in the Wynne Picture House, so called after the family name of Lord Pentre, the principal landowner of the district. The seats are all so cheap that one may find oneself sitting next to almost anyone, and, apart from the fact that there are class distinctions, some of the agricultural workers do smell so.

But to return to Llwll. Except by car it is very difficult to return to Llwll, and still more so to my aunt’s house. The branch line winds its way on from England into this barbarous country very slowly. I always imagine to myself—a pretty fantasy—that the engine is loath to go to anywhere so preposterous as Abercwm, the market town about nine miles from Llwll. At Abercwm it is necessary to get on to  a light railway, and a more boring snail’s progress than the hour taken to go those nine miles I do not know. I prefer to draw a veil over that journey.

 

2

 

I think I have said enough to convince any reader, if there ever is a reader of these notes, the reason for whose existence I will explain later on, that to live near Llwll is appalling. To live in my aunt’s house is even worse.

It is a good two miles from the end of the ridiculous Llwll light railway to Brynmawr, and my aunt is the sort of person who, if possible, arranges things so that you have to walk those two miles. She particularly likes to manage things so that I have to walk them, simply because she knows quite well that I dislike walking at all times, and have an absolute hatred of the road to Brynmawr. Brynmawr, I understand, means “The Big Hill”, a silly name for a house but one that is well justified. After you leave Llwll, you go steadily uphill for a mile and a quarter, and what a hill! My aunt, after studying the ordnance map with great care, tells me that you have to go up just on six hundred feet, and apparently it is a good deal. I can well believe her, but these figures mean little to me. It is, however, typical of my aunt that she not only possesses many maps showing this revolting country-side in the greatest detail for miles round, but that she can apparently find some pleasure in staring at them for hours on end, “reading” them as she is pleased to say, and producing from memory figures as to the height of every hillock near by. On the other hand, there are no road maps in the house of any use to you for motoring.

However, having ascended the six hundred feet or yards, or whatever it is, you find yourself, in the irritating manner of this country-side, instantly obliged to go down again in order that you may immediately go up once more. That last three-quarters of a mile is a brute; my aunt says it is beautiful; for myself, I only find it interesting as a test of my car, for although the gradients are, I believe, nothing very startling, the abrupt bends, particularly by the bridge over the brook at the bottom of the dingle, to use the local term, add to the difficulty by causing one to start at almost dead slow. But as to walking up it—

My blood boils when I think of the trick by which my aunt forced me this afternoon to walk down to Llwll and back again, quite unnecessarily.

It all started at lunch. I had finished reading La Grotte du Sphinx in the morning, and was wondering what on earth to read in the afternoon. Of course my aunt has nothing in the house fit to read. It’s full of Surtees and Dickens and Thackeray and Kipling, and dreadful hearty people like that whom no one reads now, while my aunt’s taste in modern novels runs to the Good Companions, If Winter Comes, or that interminable man, Hugh Walpole. Of course I have made my own arrangements—partly with the Next Century Book Club and partly with an admirable little French Library I found behind the British Museum. Some very amusing stuff they send me at times.

Normally I take care never to be left to the resources of my aunt’s works of fiction, but somehow or other the expected parcel had failed to arrive by the morning’s post, owing, I expected, to the incompetence of the local post office. It is not a pleasant prospect to be book-less, and it was in no cheerful frame of mind that I watched my aunt’s small, determined figure tramping up the hill from the bridge. Really, I reflected, Aunt Mildred was a dreadful sight in her country clothes. However, a few moments in the garden would be pleasant, and I stepped out to meet her.

From half-way across the lawn she waved to me and started yelling at me from twenty yards away—a disgusting trick.

“You haven’t been stewing in the house all morning in  a lovely day like this, have you?” she said, pushing back a too youthful beret of a rather ugly shade of blue across her greying hair. “It’s perfectly gorgeous out. Do your pasty face a lot of good if you got out a bit more.”

I do hate my aunt’s personal remarks. I could have made a very obvious retort. It had not improved her complexion. As it was, I contented myself with a glance at her florid, bourgeois apple cheeks, the red patches made worse by the unconcealed drops of perspiration on her forehead. I don’t believe my aunt knows what powder is.

“It is very hot,” was my mild answer. “Much too hot to enjoy walking, I should have thought, even for those who like spending their time that way.”

My meaning was not lost on my aunt. To do her justice, it never is. She can be relied on to realize what lies behind one’s words quite well, sometimes too well.

“Well, I may be sweating—” (“Really, Aunt Mildred,” I interjected) “but it’s less of a waste of time than reading some smutty French novel.”

“My dear Aunt Mildred, La Grotte du Sphinx is not in the least as you put it” (I raised my eyebrows) “‘smutty’.”

“Well, I expect my nose is,” was my aunt’s irrelevant rejoinder. “You’ll be late for lunch if you don’t go and wash your hands now.”

My aunt removed a burr from her shabby, nondescript blue-green tweed skirt, and started to march into the house.

“I don’t suppose I shall take as long as you, dear,” I murmured. I hate being treated like a child, and I think it annoys my aunt to be called “dear”. My aunt, for all her lack of inches and her old clothes, swept regally into the house.

“By the way,” said my aunt, after lunch had partly passed away in rather stony silence, “I met Owen Davies down by the Fron Wood this morning.”

I detached a momentary interest from my gooseberry tart. Owen Davies is the local postman, but as to where the Fron Wood is, I have no idea. All these woods seem much alike to me.

“He told me,” continued my aunt, taking an inordinate amount of brown sugar, “that there was a parcel of books in the post office from somewhere French, but that the label had partly come off. He thought that they might be for you, knowing, as he said, ‘that Master Edward is the only person near here who does read such things’.” (My aunt saw fit to break into that hideous Welsh sing-song. I managed not  to wince at the “Master Edward”.) “Of course they are for you, but you’ll have to go down to Llwll to get them. Now there,” added my aunt triumphantly, “is an excellent object for a walk for you.”

“I have no intention of walking, thank you, Aunt Mildred. I expect they’re heavy. In fact, probably your protégé Davies found them too heavy and was too lazy to carry them up. I should think that was extremely likely,” I went on, warming to my subject. “Who ever heard of a gummed label coming off in the post? My friends, La Bibliothèque Moderne, are extremely careful.”

“No doubt.” My aunt laughed unpleasantly. “They don’t want them back through the post in case, in making inquiries, the police read them, but you forget the Llwll light railway. You know all the roofs of its carriages leak, and probably the label got half washed away by yesterday’s rain, and then torn.”

“Much more likely that Davies deliberately tore it. He hates carrying parcels up here.”

“Well, so would you. In fact, you dislike the very suggestion that you should walk down and do once what you make him do once a week.”

“It’s his duty. It isn’t mine,” I replied with dignity, passing my aunt the cheese.

“And does that make it more pleasant? I know, if I were he, I should hate carrying that sort of book about.”

“He’s paid for it, isn’t he?”

Somehow this mere statement of fact seemed to annoy my aunt. She rose from the table at once.

“Of course it’s nonsense pretending that Owen Davies tore the label, but anyhow I shall see that you do not get that parcel unless you walk down to Llwll.”

“That I shall not do,” I said. Apparently my aunt was forgetting my car. I retired to my own little room, which my aunt maliciously calls my boudoir, for a few minutes’ sleep after lunch—a healthy habit, I find. I was glad to be able to leave my aunt in her present mood.

Sleep, however, I found would not come to me so readily as usual. One needs an absolutely untroubled mind to fall off easily, and my mind was not untroubled. It would be unlike my aunt to forget my car, although I had carefully refrained from mentioning it, and she had sounded very positive in her statement that she would see that I did not get my books without walking. A sudden horrible idea came into my mind. Was my aunt capable of sabotaging my car, my precious car? The very idea banished all thought of sleep. I went straight round to the garage. As I passed through the hall I heard my aunt telephoning. She was actually telling the postmaster at Llwll that I was anxious about the books, and would he please see that they were delivered to no one but me in person at Llwll. The postmaster, I gathered, promised that they should not leave Llwll except in my company. Now, I wonder if I can get that fellow into trouble for delivering an unaddressed parcel. I have always disliked him.

My aunt, though, was evidently taking trouble in the matter. I heard her start another call as I went, and, to my horror, I recognized the number of the local garage, a very indifferent and badly run business, but the only one in Llwll. I hurried out to La Joyeuse, my car. Fortunately my aunt’s knowledge of car engines is small. She would be unlikely to break La Joyeuse up with a hammer or any crude means of that sort, and as for more delicate work, well, she simply wasn’t capable. It was, however, with considerable relief that I saw it there, and apparently intact. I would go straight down to Llwll in it before whatever scheme my aunt had in mind had been matured. It was just about then that I remembered that I had been anxious to make some minor adjustments to the engine, and with that end in view, for safety sake, I had let the petrol tank get practically empty, and had even gone to the trouble of siphoning out the little that remained. My aunt must have known this and have decided in her innocence that this simple fact would prevent me from using La Joyeuse.

Simple, yes. But how simple to defeat. First I tried the doors of my aunt’s car. I was not surprised to find them locked. However, my aunt, I knew, kept some reserve cans of petrol for emergencies, on which I had been relying for refilling my tank. I could use them. I went to where they were kept, but, to my surprise, the shed was empty. My aunt must have hidden them. This was infuriating, but if my aunt thought I was defeated so easily as that, she would soon find she was mistaken. It was a pity I had wasted time after lunch and so given her the necessary minutes to act. I saw now I should have gone at once. However, I, too, could telephone to the Wynneland Garage.

I reached the telephone just as my aunt was leaving it. There was an unpleasant glitter in her eye, but I was glad to see that there was also a certain amount of alarm on her face. As far as I could see, she was pleased with her stratagem, but her manner seemed to imply that she had overlooked some detail which was giving her cause for alarm. I should make it my business to see that the alarm materialized, so to speak.

I am no great friend of Herbertson, the proprietor of the Wynneland Garage. He does not really know his job, and unfortunately when it has come to repairing my car, I have been compelled to show him up and take my custom elsewhere. However, for simple matters one had to deal with him, and one such thing was petrol. I would not of course give my aunt away to a tradesman, so I merely said that my aunt and I had both unfortunately run out of petrol at the same time. Would he send a man up with some?

To my surprise, he said he was sorry it couldn’t be done. Here was an unexpected difficulty, the genuineness of which I found hard to believe. With an effort I swallowed my pride and represented to him how helpless both my aunt and I were in the circumstances. I even went so far as to ask his assistance as a favour for both of us. On the whole I thought it best to include my aunt for whom Herbertson has a great respect, while he does not entirely appreciate me, of which on the whole I am glad.

“Sorry, Mr. Edward,” came Herbertson’s unpleasant voice—I wish everyone round here would not use my Christian name—“I haven’t got anyone I can possibly spare. I would always do everything I could to help Miss Powell, but she was explaining the situation to me just now, and I gathered from her it wasn’t urgent—and anyhow I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid it’s impossible”—and with that he had the impertinence to ring off!

“I’ll never spend a penny at his beastly place again, if I can help it,” I thought, though for that matter that has been my attitude for a long time, and occasionally it is necessary to make use of his garage.

I sat for a moment in thought. Of course it was overwhelmingly clear that he was lying at my aunt’s instructions. Very well then. My aunt had thought of my using that method to extricate myself and had defeated it. It was up to me to find another, for by now it had become a matter of pride that I should have those books and should not walk.

I could not then get petrol from the Wynneland Garage. Very well, I would get petrol from one of the garages in Abercwm! It would be expensive, but, to defeat my aunt, although I have not a great income, I was quite prepared to spend any amount. My aunt, too, would have the pleasure of paying for the telephone call to Abercwm!

But here a most unexpected hitch occurred. The line to Abercwm was out of order, and the operator had no idea when it would be right. Still, however, I refused to admit defeat. I would go on ringing up garages as far away as Shrewsbury, if necessary, but get petrol I would. I put out my hand for the telephone directory. It was not there. My aunt had hidden that too.

It seemed to me that my aunt had been pretty thorough. By now I expected that she had even got at the telephone operator. She has many local activities in Llwll, and knows everyone there, high and low, and probably is well aware who the girl is. For the moment I seemed to be defeated, but then I remembered the look on my aunt’s face. There was something she had forgotten. For several minutes I sat and thought before at last it occurred to me. The doors of her car might be locked, but glass can be broken. There was petrol in her old Morris. The tank had been filled that morning. She must have been hurrying to take her car away as she should have done at first. I positively ran—and I never run if I can help it—to the garage. I might yet be just in time. Apparently I was; my aunt’s car was still there.

But suddenly I became aware of a terribly strong smell of petrol. Now, my aunt’s car, as I have mentioned, is an old Morris of positively prehistoric design. It is typical of my aunt that she scorns all modern inventions and continues to use this dilapidated old bus. I must admit that it still goes, and goes quite efficiently, but how she can bear to be so out of date, I cannot understand. Amongst the obsolete survivals of this car is its petrol supply. To empty the tank of my Wolseley Hornet completely, you have to siphon it out: to empty my aunt’s, all you have to do is to remove the top of the float chamber. The result is that the petrol is not stopped in its flow and so just pours itself on the ground. And this is what my aunt had done, with the result that the last drain was rapidly trickling out. It was surprising that my aunt had known so much about her old Morris; she must have found it out accidentally some time last winter when she had had her float chamber cleaned after getting some water in.

But I had no time for speculation then. It was time to act. Grabbing the dog’s drinking bowl and throwing away the water in it, I managed to save a little, a very little of the temporarily precious fluid. It would, I hoped, be enough.

It was, however, very little. It certainly would not get me to Llwll and back, but I could buy some in Llwll—damn Herbertson—and that would be enough to give me victory. I looked at the drop of petrol again. It was doubtful if it would take me even to Llwll, but if it once got me over the dingle, I could run down the hill with the engine off.

It was indeed La Joyeuse in which I started. I was glad now I had not broken the windows of my aunt’s car when I found it locked. I might have cut myself.

Reviews of

The Murder of My Aunt: A British Library Crime Classic

“The book fairly races along to its surprising resolution. Fans of vintage crime fiction will hope for more reissues of Hull’s work.”

Publishers Weekly

“That popular reviewer phrase ‘fiendishly clever’ could have been coined to describe this 1934 mystery, reissued by the British Library as part of its Crime Classics series…Powell’s movement toward the dark side will remind readers of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (and the Hitchcock film based on it). Fine psychological acuity, humor, and plotting throughout.”

Booklist

FacebookTwitterEmail
Goodreads