Malice Aforethought, by Francis Iles

One of my favorite classic movies is Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949), which is still one of the most blackly funny movies I’ve ever seen. I immediately thought of this movie as I read Malice Aforethought, by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox), originally published in 1931. I also thought of Knives Out (2019), which I recently saw and loved so much I can’t wait until it goes on sale so that I can watch it on a loop. Without giving too much away, all of these stories share a trope that I can’t get enough of: a murderer who is so clever they outsmart themselves. It also helps that these stories are packed full of satirical commentary on characters who think breeding can take the place of a good personality, money-grubbers, curtain-twitchers, and other types that need to be taken down a peg or two. Weirdly enough, the reading list in Eight Perfect Murders got me to pick up Malice Aforethought. I daresay sharing his favorite books with other readers was Peter Swanson’s ulterior motive.

Dr. Bickleigh is a curious character. It’s rare that we see characters that we can simultaneously pity and be a bit repulsed by. On the one hand, his wife treats him more as a servant than a spouse. She also never lets him forget that he is of an inferior social class and that she granted him a favor by marrying him. On the other, he develops obsessions with the young unmarried women of the village, chases after them until he gets a kiss (or more), and then seems to immediately lose interest. The first half of the novel shows us the mental torment Bickleigh suffers as a way to explain why he decides to murder his wife. I have to give Bickleigh credit for originality. He definitely deserves a place on a list of perfect murders because of his choice of method and his ability to drop hints in just the right place to divert suspicion away from himself.

What really made this book for me—aside from the hilarious character development—is the way that things go completely off the rails in the second half of the book. Just when Bickleigh thinks he’s gotten away with murder, another character starts to ask awkward questions. Because Bickleigh has a very active imagination (Bickleigh could also be compared to the title character from another classic movie, Walter Mitty), he completely loses his cool. All of his calculations and manipulations and scientific skill get launched out of the proverbial window. I inhaled every page of Bickleigh’s fall from his village’s grace. I had no qualms about my schadenfreude this time; Bickleigh deserves his fate.

Malice Aforethought is now one of my favorite mystery classics. Thank you to Peter Swanson for the recommendation. I’m so happy that this book turned out to be real, and not invented to forward the plot of Eight Perfect Murders.

2 Comments

  1. Great review, thank you! This was my first reading experience with Anthony Berkeley/ Francis Iles and I was blown away. I thought I must have already read the best of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and am overjoyed to discover that there are still lesser-known gems out there that I haven’t read 🙂

    As you say, Bickleigh is simultaneously odious and sympathetic, and that’s a very difficult line for an author to walk. Berkeley achieves it by sitting us down comfortably in Bickleigh’s brain from the beginning and we are lead through his thought process which, though insane to most of us, makes sense because we know where it’s all come from. I thought his stupid mistakes later on were entirely in keeping with the character, and part of my enjoyment of the book was being able to scream “you idiot!!!” at him.

    I subsequently read “Before The Fact” which uses similar techniques, but I was disappointed. Maybe a case of a man writing better about the mind of a man than that of a woman? If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you thought!

    Like

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