I’ve been meaning to get around to this book for years. Malice Aforethought is probably the most consistent title to come up whenever inverted mysteries are discussed, and I had a feeling that I should get to it before I read too many books in that vein. In part, I had gotten the impression that there may be some unique twist to this book that was later copied by others, although having now read this, I don’t think there’s really anything that spoilable.
Anthony Berkeley (here writing as Francis Iles) has been really enjoyable for me so far. His characters have this delightful smug selfishness, and his wry observations through them tell as much about the thinker as they do about whoever the snarky thoughts are directed at. It makes the stories a humorous read without ever veering in the direction of comedy. Yeah, some of his characters are inevitably asses, but that’s the fun part.
We get plenty of smug selfishness in the form of Dr Bickleigh, the central character of Malice Aforethought, who devises an especially cruel scheme to rid himself of his wife. Bickleigh’s a bit of a scoundrel, carrying out various affairs with the women of the small village where he lives. At the same time, he keeps on the respectable face of a doctor… or so he thinks. You see, one of the great things about Bickleigh is how so internally focused he is, resulting in a complete lack of awareness of how transparently his actions come across to others. As a reader it’s easy to get caught up in his internal focus as well, and when the curtain occasionally gets pulled back, the results are hilarious. Not the best trait to have when you’re planning a murder…
Well, this is an inverted mystery, thus the exact manner in which the murder unfolds and eventually unravels is really the “mystery” for the reader, so there won’t be more details from me. It’s all about the tension in the moment of the fatal act, the stark realization of no going back, and the inescapable uncertainty that follows. Berkley captures the thrill and cruelty of it all, but still manages to make it a humorous jaunt.
I have five more Berkeley books in the To Be Read pile, plus The Wintringham Mystery was just republished this week, so it will soon be six. I know that there are a few Berkeley titles that most everyone seems to despise, so I’m curious to see what that’s all about. They’ve all be pretty solid so far, although Dead Mrs Stratton did drag a bit for me at times.
I looked for a while for a nice copy of this book (the vintage Pocket Books cover is tops), but had to settle for this 1980 Perennial Library edition. The cover is ok, I guess. Other than that, it’s your typical generic 70s/80s paperback.