Malice Aforethought – Frances Iles (1930)

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.

My edition

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.

15 thoughts on “Malice Aforethought – Frances Iles (1930)”

    1. If you’re not familiar with Anthony Berkeley, be sure to check out The Poisoned Chocolates Case. It’s a well regarded book, with the primary draw being that it features over a half dozen solutions. I also really enjoyed Trial and Error, which is an inverted mystery as well.

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    1. I have “easiest” to acquire books that you might expect: The Avenging Chance, The Layton Court Mystery, The Silk Stalking Murders, The Piccadilly Murder, and Before the Fact. Out of those, I’m under the impression that Before the Fact has a good reputation. Any thoughts?

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      1. I was disappointed in Before the Fact when I first read it, because a couple of sources I’d read (this was pre-Internet) seemed to regard it as his masterpiece, and I thought it far inferior to Malice Aforethought. When I re-read it I admired it more, but still had reservations. Definitely worth reading, though. Of the other novels, The Silk Stocking Murders begins well but IMO went downhill; the trap set for the murderer was ludicrous. I like The Layton Court Mystery and The Piccadilly Murder a lot, though some people dislike the former, and the plot of the latter has some holes.

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      2. THE LAYTON COURT MYSTERY is Berkeley’s first novel, and pretty good; you can already see that he’s interested in playing around with the conventions of the genre. THE PICCADILLY MURDER is one of his most “normal” stories (a little surprising since it features Mr. Chitterwick, whose other two adventures are among the least conventional mystery stories ever written), with nothing unusual in terms of structure and the solution being a variation on an old trick, but it’s still a great book.

        THE AVENGING CHANCE is especially interesting because Berkeley later used some of the stories as springboards for full-length novels–often taking the same basic situation and developing it in a new direction. “The Avenging Chance” is basically the Roger Sheringham section of THE POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE, with no Crimes Circle or other solutions. “Perfect Alibi” was novelized as THE SECOND SHOT with an identical setup but a completely different solution. I believe “The Wrong Jar” was turned into NOT TO BE TAKEN, although I haven’t read that novel.

        One more book should be easy to acquire soon: the British Library is about to publish MURDER IN THE BASEMENT as part of their Crime Classics series.

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        1. That makes two reissues in a very short time of Berkley books that would have been very difficult to find. Berkley seems to be a bit like Henry Wade, where a subset of the books are readily available, but you might as well not even bother trying to find affordable copies of the rest. Hopefully that all gets remedied in the years to come.

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      3. The Piccadilly Murder is excellent – one of my favourite Berkeleys. The Silk Stocking Murders is clever, too, although some elements have dated. Inspired a real-life murder, too. I couldn’t get through Before the Fact.

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  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. I think you sum up Bickleigh pretty well and you are right that a lot of the entertainment here comes from the idea that what he thinks is subtle and secret is anything but. A great creation!

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      1. Incidentally, I think this would make a brilliant companion piece to Case for Sergeant Beef by Leo Bruce, which is filled with far more likeable characters, and has a far more interesting central dynamic. one of these days I intend to reread it, and I seriously hope it stands up to memory.

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