Being the “first” at something is sometimes assumed to mean that that “first” instance is also the “best” instance. Of course, some firsts are unequivocal. Take Malice Aforethought (1931), which is widely considered the first of its kind in mystery and detective fiction: a story which focuses not on the method of solving the crime (what is now often called a “procedural:” i.e.; following the classic Sherlock Holmes model), but letting the reading into the thinking of the criminal, seeing from their perspective. In the case of this particular “first,” Anthony Berkeley, operating under the pen name of Francis Iles, has written what is considered to be the first “inverted narrative,” that is, a tale of detection or murder in which the goal is not to reveal the perpetrator, but to sit back, and see how the black deed was accomplished while studying the motivations and makeup of the murderer. The suspense lies not in wondering who has committed the crime, but when they will commit it, and whether or not they will escape justice for having done so.
But is it the best, or indeed, is it any good at all? Author Colin Dexter, creator of the Morse novels, seems to think so, and his introduction to the 1999 Pan edition of Malice he points out the differences between the sort of classic “Golden Age” detective novel (a term with which I a few problems, although fewer than the dismissively diminutive epithet “cosy”) of which one traditionally thinks, and this new animal, a sort of “inverted narrative.” Dexter, who one may guess from the Morse tales is also more of a “character” writer than a “plot” writer, notes that the 1931 novel was the first instance where “the emphasis shifted firmly and deliberately from plot towards character.”
Dr. Edmund Bickleigh has been unhappily married to his wife Julia for ten years. The book opens with Edmund undertaking preparations for a village tennis party, to which the local crème de la crème of Wyvern’s Cross have been invited. Julia’s bullying ways, and her disagreeable view of Edmund’s profession of as a local medical man, become evident from their interaction, but Dr. Bickleigh is not saintly in his own regard; he has attempted illicit liasons and seductions on local women for some little time, though always discretely enough to remain unnoticed. Ivy, one of his regular but easily discarded conquests, seems patient enough to wait patiently for Bickleigh, thinking that she will one day have him to herself. But Bickleigh’s roving eye is never still, and at the tennis party, he hopes, under the very eyes of his neighbours in the village, to make a play for the lovely Gwynyfryd Rattery. And even when this goes amiss, the local philandering doctor has other irons in other fires.
But when Dr. Bickleigh strikes up a new acquaintance with a new woman in the village, Madeleine Cranmere, he finds that his desire to make away with his wife has grown to such proportions that he is prepared, at last, to act upon it. Bickleigh, who seems to fancy just about anything in a skirt, is quickly swept away by Madeleine’s charms, when they meet first at her house, ostensibly as a medical man calling to mention, among other things, the terrible condition of the drains. Their whirlwind romance prompts the doctor to demand a divorce from Julia. Her acceptance or refusal will seal her fate.
It is difficult to discuss elements of the plot without giving away the substantial twist at the end of the book, which is worth the reading for. Doctor Bickleigh is not a sympathetic character by any means, and ironically it seems that the most human-seeming character might end up being his long-suffering wife Julia, although she is clearly the principal architect of her own misery. Interestingly, the doctor’s use of an incubator to cultivate nasty bacilli for nefarious porpoises is reminiscent of the real-life events detailed in Deaths on Pleasant Street (qv), which I mentioned several months ago. Doctor Bickleigh is clearly the sort of nightmare physician on whom the cheaper tabloids thrive: the sort who has no compunction about employing his medical knowledge and skill to achieve his ends, up to and including murder, by any number of fiendish means. Who better than a doctor, after all, to cover up a murder? this seems to be Iles / Berkeley’s question.
In the end, the book does succeed, and remains in the mind long after reading. It isn’t a comfortable tale, and it certainly isn’t “cosy.” But if you’re the sort who sides more readily with the villain of the piece than the dogged Plodd of the Yard, then Malice Aforethought will very probably be your cup of tea. Four stars.
Reviewed 26 May 2016.