In C.H. B. Kitchin’s amusing country house mystery, Death of My Aunt, London stockbroker, Malcom Warren is unexpectedly summoned to his Aunt Catherine’s home, Otho House, in the country. Malcolm had “invited himself” the home of some friends for the weekend, but when he arrives back at his flat on Friday evening, there’s a telegram waiting from his Uncle Hannibal Cartwright stating that Aunt Catherine wants to see Malcolm that very night. Aunt Catherine is the one person, in all of Malcolm’s extended family, who has any sizeable amount of money. She married a rich, older man, John Dennis, who died in 1919, a decade before this story begins.
Over this money my aunt had absolute control and absolute power of disposition. By virtue of it, she became queen of the family.
When John Dennis died, his side of the family, none of whom were very well off, “considered they had a moral claim” on his estate. Then Aunt Catherine, who had been a beautiful woman, developed a “painful skin disease” and lost her looks. In 1926, she married a much younger man, Hannibal Cartwright, much loathed by Aunt Catherine’s relatives and called a “fortune hunter,” and a “member of the lower classes.” Hannibal was, at the time of the marriage, “the owner or, more probably, the manager of the garage in which she [Catherine] kept her car.” The only one of Aunt Catherine’s relatives who actually likes Hannibal is Malcolm, and part, if not all of Malcolm’s feelings, are rooted in dislike for all of his other relatives, in particular, the Carvel branch–Malcolm’s maternal uncle, his wife and their offspring.
Malcolm arrives late that night at Ortho House, talks briefly to his uncle and is given a letter from Aunt Catherine asking him to look at her investment book which is locked in a desk in her boudoir. Malcolm does as instructed and then the next morning meets with his Aunt. Aunt Catherine is a capricious woman, and it’s not clear exactly what she wants of Malcolm. As they chat, she asks him to fetch her beauty tonic (also from the desk in the boudoir). Aunt Catherine drinks from the bottle, begins to have “spasms” and dies. It’s not long before the doctor arrives and determines that Aunt Catherine’s death is murder.
I liked the book’s light tone, and the narrator’s voice makes for great entertainment. Malcolm realizes quickly that the poison must have been in the very bottle he handed to his Aunt and that he is a prime suspect. At one point, he even draws up a chart listing suspects, and then he gives “marks” for “weakness of alibi,” “opportunity,” “murderous disposition,” and “motive.” To his horror, both he and his uncle score 31 (top marks) out of a possible 40. Of course, there is so much wrong with his chart and his methodology, as we discover over the course of the book. This chart, incidentally, appears in the chapter “Meditation” which reveals more about Malcolm than about the possible identity of the murderer. At one point Malcolm states:
I do not believe that murder is always the most awful of all sins. It may not even be a sin at all.
The Death of My Aunt is a lively little mystery. Part of the fun comes from the snapshot of the times. Malcolm receives 100 a year from his deceased father’s estate, and his spotty stockbroker career could use an injection of cash. Within the first few lines, he mentions his “grimy” hat, and later we find out that some of his recommended investments sank like the Titanic.
Malcolm and all of his relatives are leading a genteel life on a not-so-genteel budget. Some of his female relatives have made unfortunate marriages and many others, post WWI, are spinsters still living at home. One married female relative lives in a “hovel” on the Riviera (!) so all branches of the family are stretched tight when it comes to money. The only exception is, of course, Aunt Catherine, who at age 63, is presented as doddery and querulous–a difficult, spoiled woman with the gall to marry a much younger man staggeringly out of her status and class. Malcolm’s tone, as an amateur sleuth/narrator is lively, fresh and engaging. Here he is musing about the police inspector.
He set no store, as I was to realise more fully later, by the waywardness of human nature, made no allowances for the innumerable irrational acts habitually performed by rational people, had no conception of the mass of habits and inhibitions which continually regulate, unawares, the behaviour of the most normal. He would, I was sure, be suspicious of any plea of absent-mindedness, momentary indecisions, sudden revulsion. In short, I felt he might learn much from me.