The latest exhumation from the British Library of Crime Classics is the 1934 debut of the pseudonymous Richard Henry Sampson (1896–1973), a deliciously black comedy of murder most botched.
Anticipating by more than 20 years the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, Hull presents the salt-and-cyanide duo of Edward Powell, a smugly unemployed dilettante of refined literary tastes, supercilious dialogue, and overweening vanity, and Mildred Powell, his maiden aunt, guardian under his grandmother’s will, and housemate in Brynmawr, outside the Welsh village of Llwll, a spot that’s either perfectly lovely or suffocatingly parochial, depending whom you ask. Even the most routine conversations between the two as they discuss, for example, whether Edward will be obliged to walk all the way to the village to pick up the latest parcel of French novels he’s ordered, are rife with such provocation on both sides as they scheme to secure the most minute psychic advantages over each other that even without the title, you’d know it would be only a matter of time before Edward decided that his life would be much richer, freer, and more untroubled without Aunt Mildred. Unfortunately, his initial attempt on her life, cleverly conceived as it is, doesn’t quite go according to plan. Now Edward must deal not only with the suspicion that will naturally fall on him if he’s successful and the fact that every soul in Llwll seems fully apprised of everyone else’s business and obsessed with the possibility of learning even more, but with the likelihood that Aunt Mildred has the wind up and that, as she repeatedly warns him, any future such activities on his part will force her to “take action.” A child could see where this is all heading.
Even so, fans of acid domestic intrigue as only the British can serve it up will rejoice in the republication of this minor classic despite an overlong last chapter that reveals the murderous narrator as even more witless, and his target as even more resourceful, than readers already knew.