Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Malice Aforethought: Francis Iles


An inverted mystery reveals the murderer early in the story and usually shows the murder taking place. Then the real mystery of the story is why the murder was done or how the murderer is caught. Some readers don't go for that, but I really do. Usually.

Malice Aforethought is mentioned frequently as one of the first inverted mystery novels. I have read and enjoyed many inverted mysteries but in this one the emphasis is more on the buildup to the murder than on the events following the event.

Dr. Edmund Bickleigh, known to his wife and friends as Teddy, is the murderer and he takes quite a while planning and executing the murder. Although we know from the beginning that he wants to murder his wife, he is very careful to do it in a way that won't look like murder.

This book was written in 1931 and it was very innovative for its time.The setting is a small English village where everyone knows everyone and gossip is a way of life. The village was filled with very unappealing characters, including Teddy.


Unfortunately the book just did not work for me.  There were very few things I liked about it. But I am in the minority.

The book had a great beginning and I liked the ending, but there was not enough to keep me interested in between. I don't have to like the characters, but I do need to be interested in them, and I was not. Teddy's wife was an overbearing, snobby woman and I could almost understand him wanting to get rid of her. But his behavior is just as bad and I could not build up any sympathy for anyone.

The tension builds admirably; over the course of the book, Teddy develops from an almost normal if somewhat self-centered man to gradually losing control over his whims and emotions.  But it took too long for anything to happen. There were long, detailed descriptions of activities. But I found none of that entertaining or enlightening. I kept reading because I was sure that I was missing something.



Although most reviewers give this book glowing reviews, I am not totally alone in my opinion. In 1001 Midnights, by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller, Marsha Muller's review of Malice Aforethought agrees with my assessment. She says:

"If Teddy and his wife are not likable neither is anyone else.... And it does take Teddy an interminable time to get on with his murder--so long that when it finally happens, it's more a relief than a shock. This book is slow going, and like its protagonist, seems to have few redeeming qualities."

Francis Iles is a pseudonym for Anthony Berkeley Cox. The author also published books as Anthony Berkeley.

Because this is a classic crime fiction novel and so well-liked by so many, I would still recommend that you give the book a try. Check out the following reviews. All except one is very positive.




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Publisher:  Harper & Row, 1981 (orig. publ. 1931)
Length:      290 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Inverted mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

18 comments:

  1. No book is for everyone, Tracy. And I know exactly what you mean about not finding any of the characters to be interesting. If there isn't at least one character to hold the interest, it's almost impossible to be drawn into the story.

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    1. I wanted to like it, Margot. But you are right, we are all different in our reading tastes.

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  2. Not one I'll be seeking out thanks.

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    1. Probably not one you would enjoy, Col.

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  3. I tried it in the 70s, and per notes, it was a Did Not Finish. No idea how far I got in it, but I'd guess less than half.

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    1. I wish I had been taking notes on the books I read for that long, Rick. I only started recording the books I read in 2002, and even then I did not add any thoughts on each book. Now with the blog, I have some record for the last 6 years.

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  4. I'm like you, Tracy, in slogging along thru a book that's not working, in the hope something will crop up to make it all come clear. But, alas, I don't like unlikable characters, so I believe I shall take a pass on this one. By the way, yesterday I came up with the best working title yet for my novel-in-progress: The Man With the Slap-Me Face. Fortunately I've offset him with more sympathetic types.

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    1. I rarely give up on a book, Mathew, but usually I am pretty sure going into it that I will like a book. I like that title for your novel but I would not want to be that man.

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  5. It is such a strange sensation when a book gets rave reviews...and you think: "Am I reading the same book as those people?"
    But it is always fun to stick to your opinions and respect those of others. Two books that fell into this category were Lincoln in the Bardo (G. Saunders) and Angel of Respose (W. Stegner). C'est la vie!
    PS Loved your review "It was so rad." :) (LOL)

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    1. Thanks, Nancy. Readers of Lincoln in the Bardo were indeed very divided in their reactions. I plan to read it sometime this year, soon I hope.

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    2. After watching the movie Lincoln again last month on DVD and watching the special features, and learning the film was based on a section of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, I went ahead and read it. I don't believe I shall ever need to read anything on Lincoln again. It took me a couple of weeks, but I was rapt all the way. I loved the film, too, even tho it strayed far afield of the very brief 13th Amendment section of the massive book. I was thinking of reviewing it here, but decided to do so would be invite ridicule--in fact it would be impossible to do the book justice.

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    3. That is one long book, Mathew. I don't think I would ever finish a book that long, but then I don't do well with nonfiction books. The approach of the book sounds good.

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    4. She's an engaging writer, Tracy. And her material includes so much primary sourcing--diaries and letters--and, of course the topic is irresistible.

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    5. I was looking at the author's other books and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II is more my type of thing. And ONLY 768 pages.

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  6. I knew there was a reason why I hadn't read this, Tracy. It never did sound like something I'd enjoy. Though I had heard of it and also PBS Mystery did an adaptation years ago. I may have seen that.

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    1. Lots of mystery readers do like Malice Aforethought, Yvette, but I would not push it on anyone. I might like an adaptation better than the book.

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  7. I read this years ago, and liked it. And I normally don't like inverted mysteries, so we have opposite positions, maybe there's a clue in there. Berkeley isn't a great favourite of mine, I find him very cold-hearted: but it seems to suit this book. And of course maybe if I re-read it now I wouldn't like it so much...

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    1. It is different from the inverted mysteries I have liked, Moira, but I think one problem might have been my high expectations based on reviews.

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