Malice Aforethought (Francis Iles)

  • By Francis Iles
  • First published: UK: Gollancz, 1931; US: Harpers, 1931

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Berkeley - Malice Aforethought.jpg

Dr. Bickleigh, a philandering medico suffering from an inferiority complex, determines to rid himself of his wife, a bullying and domineering shrew, in order to marry his mistress—who announces her engagement to another man immediately after the murder. (Of course, his “ingenious” plan is immediately seen through by the other villagers.)  A clever black comedy, for this is its main strength, not its status as the first serious crime novel  — and I have my doubts about this: didn’t Mrs. Belloc Lowndes anticipate Cox? Superb wit: excellent social satire — St. Mary Mead steeped in venomed ink, with plenty of amusingly catty back – biting and splendid caricatures. Berkeley at his most acerbic is highly amusing, in small doses — like aconitine.

Oh, and the University of Sydney library has a signed copy.  “For “The Lawyer” (of “The Notebooks”) from Francis Iles.  4.VII.1934”

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Eustratius Emmanuel Mavrogordato, 19 March 1931): Malice Aforethought is put forward as being “The Story of a Commonplace Crime” and the work of “a famous novelist”, who elects to call himself Francis Iles.  One may accept the sub-title to this extent – that the crime is one of poisoning committed by a person who understands poisons, but with the qualification that in the technical details of the poisoning there is contrivance that is not commonplace, and that nevertheless not the crime but the criminal is the object of chief interest.  One would guess, too, that the author is not at his first novel from his skill in the art of narrative.  His ending is a triumph of stage management.  It is more than that; through it Francis Iles is enabled to administer deserved chastisement while pulling the leg of Justice, so that he scores off of everybody at once!  In the world as it presents itself to his acrid temperament it is an ideal ending.

But the world which he is presumably presenting to his readers is a world they know as well as he does, and in making it recognisable to them this acrid temperament and the desire to administer chastisement that goes with it is a handicap.  His people belong to the upper middle class and live in a small provincial town.  Almost without exception they at once excite dislike.  The objection to this general condemnation is not the sentimentalist’s objection that it is unkind, but the statistician’s that it is wrong.  Moreover, where these people have but small parts to play emphasis on their defects is distracting.  Throughout the book Francis Iles uses more force than is needed for producing the results at which he aims.  His two chief characters are a little self-made doctor and his wife Julia.  Julia, daughter of a ruined twelfth baronet, had married him as a pis aller.  She is horrible; for the author’s purpose she had to be; but he is not content to make her offensive in an aristocratic way – which competently handled is surely offensive enough – he must also make her offensive in an upstart way.  The doctor is the worm that turned, for he poisoned her; and what makes him interesting among murderers is his timidity.  He is the least dominant of males; scandal would have ruined his practice; and the author, in attributing to him many mistresses, seems to be actuated rather by a desire to show up the young women of the district than to make him intelligible; one extra-matrimonial love affair would have served all his ends.  But when Francis Iles becomes absorbed in these ends he is convincing.  He commands understanding, even sympathy, for this hen-pecked, paltry little man with his day-dreams of self-assertion; his seizing of a way of escape; his nervous blunders; his struggles in his tangled web; and his emotions when tried for his life.

The Spectator (M.I. Cole, 9 May 1931): Mr. Francis Iles, whatever be the distinguished name which this pseudonym covers, knows how to write and sketch character.  This story, in the manner of Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes, of a doctor who decided to murder his wife is sordid, exciting and economically written; and the surprise at the end is excellently stage-managed.  Mundanus [the publishers] are to be congratulated.

Sat R (H.C. Harwood, 28th February 1931, 120w): It is a long time since I have read anything so good as Malice Aforethought, with its cynical humour, acute criminology, plausible detail and rapid movement.  It makes you hug yourself with pleasure, unless you are one of those who think crime not quite nice.

NY Times (Bruce Rae, 7th June 1931, 180w): It is a fine psychological study of a distorted mind and is recommended to all who require substance in their mystery stories.

Boston Transcript (24th June 1931, 320w): The story is a finely written analytic psychological tale of crime, and a splendid series of features of English middle class country life with all its malicious gossip and petty foibles.

Books (Will Cuppy, 12th July 1931, 220w): Mr. Iles, intentionally, of course, gives away his grisly secrets as he goes along, and the result is quite as readable as if he hadn’t.