Malice Aforethought – Francis Iles
First published in 1931, Malice Aforethought is an early example of what is known as an inverted narrative crime novel. What this means is that the focus is not on solving the crime a la Sherlock Holmes and Maigret but on seeing how the murder was carried out and to understand the motivation and psychological make-up of the murderer. After all, Iles aka Anthony Berkeley aka Anthony Berkeley Cox baldly states in the opening sentence that Doctor Bickleigh, a hen-pecked man with a pronounced inferiority complex, is going to do away with his wife. For the reader the principal interest is how he did it and whether he got away with it.
In some ways Bickleigh is a stereotypical murderer. He is trapped in a loveless marriage – Julia, his wife, is portrayed as an awful, domineering woman. Her bullying and unsympathetic manner is given full rein in the opening scenes of the book during the preparations for a tennis party to which the great and the good of Wyvern’s Cross are invited. Mind you, Bickleigh is no saint. He is a philanderer and has a string of lady friends, including the faithful Ivy whom Bickleigh treats with disdain. At the tennis party, Bickleigh’s advances are rebuffed by Gwynyfryd Rattery. A new woman, Madelaine Cranmere arrives in the village and when Bickleigh falls for his charms and demands a divorce which Julia refuses, you know her fate is sealed.
The other sense in which Bickleigh is a stereotypical murderer is that he is a Doctor, a profession which gives him easy access to drugs and poisons. I will not spoil the story but, suffice to say, that his chosen profession proves very helpful.
Iles’ approach allows us insights into Bickleigh’s mind and thought processes. He is characterised as a rather pompous man, self-satisfied and convinced that he has planned the perfect murder. But as events go somewhat out of control, the reader begins to realise that Bickleigh is not as clever as he thinks he is and is increasingly deluded about the natures and motives of those around him. He is not a sympathetic character and although I was drawn into the book, fascinated by the modus operandi of the murderer and the tensions around whether the crime would be detected, I found it mattered not to me whether he got away with or swung.
Iles is particularly good at painting quick character sketches and gets the insular and bitchy world of English country life down to a tee. The unsettling thought is that many of us find ourselves trapped in some aspects of our lives, desperate to find a way out. How easily would we be tipped towards a path which results in murder?
Iles presumably got his inspiration for the book in part from Dr Crippins and Herbert Rowse Armstrong, the so-called Hay poisoner and the only solicitor to be hanged for murder in England. The book takes an unexpected twist right at the end. If you are tempted to read it and have a battered second-hand copy, make sure that it contains the Epilogue. I may be old-fashioned but I much prefer a whodunit!