I’m back to reading my classic golden age mysteries. However, Malice Aforethought is not the type of book that people generally think of when they think of the Golden Age, as can be seen by the opening lines, above. Yet the book was written by one of the most prominent members of the Golden Age writers, Anthony Berkeley, co-founder of the Detection Club, under the pseudonym Frances Iles. Berkeley managed to keep his authorship of this book secret for over two years: it still had not been revealed when the second Iles book, Before the Fact, was published.
Malice Aforethought is what is known as an inverted mystery, where the identity of the murderer is known from the beginning. Rather than the interest being in finding out who did it, the reader gets to follow the motives of the killer, to see why he decides to commit murder, how he does it, and if he gets away with it. The focus is very much on the criminal rather than on the detective or the plot. mystery writer to use this type of format, but it wasn’t common at the time and the book was considered shocking. These days the technique is much more common.
Bickleigh, the protagonist, is a frustrated man in an unhappy marriage. His wife, Julia, is socially superior to him and constantly reminds him of this. He has had an inferiority complex from a young age and marriage to Julia has made this worse. He consoles himself, in part, through an active fantasy world and, in part, through a series of affairs with local women. In the opening chapter he is preparing for another conquest and is quite upset at being rejected by his latest choice. More public humiliations from Julia immediately after this rejection start him thinking how much better his life would be if Julia was dead. But he doesn’t give the matter any real consideration until a few chapters later when he falls heavily for a new woman. For the first time he thinks he is seriously in love (having followed his thoughts on other loves, a reader could have cause to doubt this) and is prepared to face the social and professional consequences of divorce. But Julia won’t give him a divorce, so he decides she must die. The first half of the book becomes Bickleigh’s account of his extremely clever plan for murder, culminating in Julia’s death. The second half is then him facing the consequences of his actions and his increasingly desperate attempts to regain the control he sees slipping away from him.
At the beginning I did have a bit of sympathy for Bickleigh. Julia is over-bearing and demanding. At a tennis party, described in the opening chapter, I was mentally hearing her shrill cries of "Edmund!" in the tones used by Sybil (Prunella Scales) to Basil (John Cleese) in Fawlty Towers. But slowly, Julia becomes a more sympathetic character, and shows her herself to have a better understanding of Bickleigh and his philandering ways than Bickleigh does himself. But really, none of the characters in the book are appealing. Bickleigh rapidly lost the limited sympathy I had for him as his delusions increased and as his attitude towards all of the women in his life became more apparent. He creates his own problems and never demonstrates any reasons why we should hope that he might get away with what he has done. Overall, he comes across as a lecher who routinely preys on young women who don’t have the experience to see him for what he is. Julia might have grown on me a little, enough to feel sorry for what Bickleigh did, but she never becomes a lovable character.
I really enjoyed this book. Berkeley’s writing is very witty, in a sarcastic, catty way. The beginning and the ending were both strong and kept me reading compulsively. But the middle section dragged a bit, and I thought the same point was reiterated a few too many times. The ending especially amused me: there was such a glorious irony to the end of Bickleigh’s story, but no one could argue that it wasn’t well deserved. This is deservedly a classic of the genre and worth reading.
A bit of side trivia: Berkeley dedicated this book to his wife. It has never been recorded what her thoughts were regarding this ‘compliment’.