Thursday 20 January 2000

Francis Iles: Malice Aforethought (1931)

Edition: Pan, 1999
Review number: 425

Malice Aforethought is touted as the first modern crime novel. This is because it dropped the central feature of the genre from its beginnings to the twenties, the puzzle, to concentrate on the psychology of murder. This is clear from the very first sentence, which announces the identity of the killer. However, though innovative, I don't think Malice Aforethought particularly good. I found the psychology unconvincing and the surprise ending both contrived and not today particularly surprising. (A reviewer of the time said that not one person in ten thousand would guess it, even in the middle of the last page.)

Dr Edmund Bickleigh, a country GP, is driven by an inferiority complex fed by the British class system (he has risen above his background but doesn't feel that he fits in) and by his wife, Julia, who bosses him unmercifully. He takes refuge in low key affairs, but when his latest flirtation goes disastrously wrong Julia's contempt makes him decide to murder her.

The problem with the novel is really that the focal character, Edmund Bickleigh, is not particularly interesting, and the ways in which his feelings of inferiority make themselves apparent are not sufficiently subtle or varied. Julia seems potentially a much more interesting person, but we don't get much insight into her character as she is just there to grind her husband down. Edmund is too one dimensional to be a good basis for psychological study.

I'm not so sure about the claim that this novel pioneered the modern crime novel. By the early thirties, there were writers around who had a greater interest in psychology and character instead of the obsession with the mechanics of plot which marked the work of authors such as Christie. And Malice Aforethought has not stopped the production of much plot led crime fiction to this day, almost sixty years later. I would also feel that the modern crime novel is more characterised by gritty realism than psychological insight, a legacy from American writers like Raymond Chandler.

I wouldn't go so far as to dismiss Malice Aforethought with the "0 out of 10" someone has written on the public library copy I read, but it certainly didn't live up to its reputation so far as this reader is concerned.

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