Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

A game of two halves…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Dr Edmund Bickleigh is married to Julia, a woman some years older than him and far above him in the social status stakes. Her domineering manner feeds into his inferiority complex, but he compensates by having a string of affairs with the surprisingly willing young ladies of his Devonshire village. Gossip is a problem, of course, but Julia is willing to look the other way since she’s not the least bit in love with Edmund herself. So all remains well, until Edmund meets the one woman that he knows is his real, true love – the woman he should have married, would marry now if only he were free. Divorce is a problem – reputation is everything for a professional man. So there’s really only one course left to pursue…

It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.

Francis Iles is one of the several names used by Anthony Berkeley Cox, who under the name Anthony Berkeley wrote The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which I recently thoroughly enjoyed. This book, Malice Aforethought, was, according to the blurb, the first novel in which the name of the potential murderer is revealed from the beginning. (I’m not sure if that’s a fact – Martin Edwards doesn’t mention it in his discussion of the book in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels, and I’d have expected that he would if it were true. Anyway…)

The first half of the book tells of the lead up to the murder attempt and is full of rather sly mockery of Dr Bickleigh and all the other characters. Edwards lists it under the heading The Ironists, and this seems like a good description for the style. It’s written in the third person but told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the doctor, so that the reader can’t be sure how distorted the picture of the other characters is by his perception of them. As often happens in books that set out to be ironical or satirical, there are really no characters in this that are likeable, and I must say I found the women in particular come off really badly – either silly, mindless girls desperate to be admired and loved, or gossiping middle-aged spinsters, or domineering/dominated wives. For a long time, I couldn’t decide if this was Dr Bickleigh’s view of women or the author’s, but when I remembered that I have in fact read other books by this author under different pen-names which didn’t strike me in the same way, I acquitted Iles and decided it was a rather clever indication of Dr Bickleigh’s compensation for his feelings of inferiority.

Challenge details:
Book: 80
Subject Heading: The Ironists
Publication Year: 1931

I enjoyed the first half a lot as we follow Dr Bickleigh through his various romantic entanglements until he reaches the ecstasy of total infatuation with the new girl in town. Julia behaves more like a stern mother than a wife, disapproving of Edmund’s behaviour rather than exhibiting any signs of jealousy. The odd thing is that everyone appears to like Edmund, and that seems to be more than his distorted perception. He appears to have an outward charm that conceals his narcissistic, selfish interior self effectively from the world. We are shown how he uses fantasies to bolster his self-confidence but that those fantasies seem to have gone so far as to over-inflate his ego. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked Julia, I vastly preferred her to this obnoxious little creep, who failed to charm me in any way at all! So I found an unexpected sympathy for the proposed victim, which I’m not at all sure we are supposed to feel.

Francis Iles

There’s some doubt up to the halfway mark as to whether the murder attempt will come off or fail, and that added the necessary element of suspense to hold my interest, so I won’t spoil it by telling. But after we know whether Julia survives or not, the second half is spent with Edmund trying to cover up his plot, and I found it dragged interminably. Of course, largely this was because I disliked him so much I hoped he would be found out, but also the story spiralled further and further beyond my credulity line as it went on. The reasonable psychology of the first half disappears in the second, and from being mildly amusing, Edmund descends to being simply annoying. I spent the final third wishing it would hurry up and get to the end and when it did, it didn’t surprise me as much as it was intended to, I think.

So a game of two halves for me – I thoroughly enjoyed the first and was thoroughly bored by the second. But then, irony has never been one of my favourite things, so I have no doubt it will work better for plenty of readers.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Dover Publications.

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TBR Thursday 182…

A fifth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

I’m going dramatically slowly on this challenge because of all the other vintage crime books that have come my way recently, but I haven’t forgotten about it completely!

And since I’ve now read and reviewed all of the books from the fourth batch of MMM books, here goes for the fifth batch…

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

Courtesy of Dover Publications via NetGalley. Martin Edwards lists this one under the sub-heading The Ironists. Hmm… ironically, I’m not always all that keen on irony, but we’ll see. The blurb sounds good…

The Blurb says: Dr. Edmund Bickleigh married above his station. Although popular and well respected in his little Devonshire community, he seethes with resentment at the superior social status of his domineering wife, Julia. Bickleigh soothes his inferiority complex by seducing as many of the local women as he possibly can — but with the collapse of his latest fling and a fresh dose of sneering contempt from Julia, the doctor resolves to silence his wife forever and begins plotting the perfect murder.

With Malice Aforethought, Francis Iles produced not just a darkly comic narrative of psychological suspense but also a landmark in crime fiction: for the first time, the murderer’s identity was revealed at the start of the tale. Hailed as a tour de force by the British press of its day, the book retains its shock value and stands at #16 in the Crime Writers’ Association ranking of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. (Oh good grief, not another book list – save me!!)

Challenge details

Book No: 80

Subject Heading: The Ironists

Publication Year: 1931

Martin Edwards says: “…what set Malice Aforethought apart was the cool wit of the story-telling, which makes the book compulsive reading despite the shortage of characters with whom readers would wish to identify. It was entirely in keeping with the ironic tone of the book that it was dedicated to the author’s wife, from whom he became divorced less than a year later.”

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Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers

I am not one of Ms Sayers’ legion of fans, finding both her and her detective Lord Peter Wimsey snobby and irritatin’. However it’s a long time since I last read one, so maybe I’ve become more open-minded with age. Yeah, right… 😂

The Blurb says: The Duke of Denver, accused of murder, stands trial for his life in the House of Lords.Naturally, his brother Lord Peter Wimsey is investigating the crime – this is a family affair. The murder took place at the duke’s shooting lodge and Lord Peter’s sister was engaged to marry the dead man.But why does the duke refuse to co-operate with the investigation? Can he really be guilty, or is he covering up for someone?

Challenge details

Book No: 19

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1926

Edwards says: “Lord Peter Wimsey was created as a conscious act of escapism by a young writer who was short of money, and experiencing one unsatisfactory love affair after another. Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, second son of the Duke of Denver, began his fictional life as a fantasy figure.”

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Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg

A detecting bishop! Take that, Father Brown! I’m expecting at least an archbishop next time… or maybe the Pope!

The Blurb says: Death of an Airman is an enjoyable and unorthodox whodunit from a writer whose short life was as remarkable as that of any of his fictional creations. When an aeroplane crashes, and its pilot is killed, Edwin Marriott, the Bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, is on hand. In England on leave, the Bishop has decided to learn how to fly, but he is not convinced that the pilot’s death was accidental. In due course, naturally, he is proved right. The Bishop and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard make an appealing pair of detectives, and ultimately a cunning criminal scheme is uncovered.

Challenge details

Book No: 58

Subject Heading: Scientific Enquiries

Publication Year: 1934

Edwards says: “The story ‘bubbles over with zest and vitality’, as Dorothy L Sayers said in The Sunday Times; she applauded ‘a most ingenious and exciting plot, full of good puzzles and discoveries and worked out among a varied cast of entertaining characters.’

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Payment Deferred by CS Forester

I’ve never thought of CS Forester as a crime writer – Hornblower and The African Queen are what spring to my mind. Sounds good, though…

The Blurb says: Mr Marble is in serious debt, desperate for money to pay his family’s bills, until the combination of a wealthy relative, a bottle of Cyanide and a shovel offer him the perfect solution. In fact, his troubles are only just beginning. Slowly the Marble family becomes poisoned by guilt, and caught in an increasingly dangerous trap of secrets, fear and blackmail. Then, in a final twist of the knife, Mrs Marble ensures that retribution comes in the most unexpected of ways…

First published in 1926, C. S. Forester’s gritty psychological thriller took crime writing in a new direction, portraying ordinary, desperate people committing monstrous acts, and showing events spiralling terribly, chillingly, out of control.

Challenge details

Book No: 74

Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime

Publication Year: 1926

Edwards says: “Marble is haunted by fear that his secret will be discovered, and Forester charts his disintegration in sharp, disdainful prose. Payment Deferred is a short but striking book; despite the young author’s inexperience, it remains a compelling read.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK. The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?