REVIEW: MALICE AFORETHOUGHT by Francis Iles

Published by Macmillan Collectors Library 

ISBN: 978 1509 889 365 price £9.99

Of all the writers of the golden age one of those who appeals to me most of all is the fellow I like to think of his ABC, his real name was Anthony Berkeley Cox. He wrote under the name Anthony Berkeley and various other names, including Francis Iles. 

Why do I like him? He was one of the early “golden age” mystery writers, and not only one of the first members of the Detection Club when that wonderful organisation was created in the 1930s, but was practically the creator of it. ABC was noted at the time for his skill with stories, especially those involving apparently insignificant men who are suddenly thrust into the limelight – often with disastrous results. He had a lot of interest in new ideas for stories, rather than straight detective fiction. Obviously we all know that Agatha Christie was a trail-blazer with her ideas about telling stories from different perspectives, or using new narrative schemes, such as that of Murder on the Orient Express, or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but Anthony Berkeley Cox was one of those writers who was constantly creative, constantly looking at new ideas for how to tell a story, and he also wrote with a wicked sense of humour.

Malice Aforethought is being re-published by Macmillan, under a special imprint that they have created called Macmillan Collectors Library. This is an absolutely wonderful little collection of books. I say “little” because this copy is only 10 cm x 16 ( which is roughly 4″ x 6 1/4 inches, in English ). It comes in hardback, with its own little dust cover. Underneath the book covers have a rather delightful motif embossed. The writing on the spine is in gold blocking, which is rather nice, and what is really very attractive is that all the pages are edged in gold. To finish, the book has a ribbon bookmark.

These books are a delight. They are pocket-sized, and in this format bring to memory books as they used to be published back in the 1930s and 40s. I could continue to rave about them for quite some time! I think it’s beautiful.

So let’s get down to the meat of this: what is the story? Well, the story follows the life of Dr Edmund Bickleigh. He is married to a rather insufferable wife, Julia. The book really begins when he and Julia are hosting a tennis party where gossip rivals tennis as the most interesting sport. The seemingly genteel doctor is unable to tolerate his incessant henpecking and this leads to rather dramatic consequences. A new lady appears in the area, young Madeline Cranmere, and the good doctor is soon utterly besotted with her. The first sentence gives away the thrust of the story: 

“It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.”

On the cover it says, “Francis Iles’s classic crime novel is one of the earliest and finest examples of the inverted detective story – we know who committed the crime. The question is, will he get away with it? Set in stuffy 1920s England, and told from the perspective of the devious Dr Bickleigh, himself, Malice Aforethought, is impeccably plotted, and darkly comic.

I can’t really improve on that. It’s an absolutely superb story, brilliantly conceived and superbly well told. It’s just a joy. In fact it’s such a joy. I was up at 3:30 this morning still reading it – which is not good for the work I’ve got to do today. I love this author, I’ve recently read another one of his books and I have a couple more of his to collect. The British library has its own selection of titles which they are also re-publishing and I have recently acquired Till Death Do Us Part, which was a superb story, and also Murder in the Basement. These are both by ABC under the name Anthony Berkeley.

So what have I got to say about this book? First of all it is darkly comic. It’s an absolute delight. ABC wrote with a slightly cynical look at British culture and British society, and this story is frankly delightful. I doubt it would get published today because of the misogyny – I can easily imagine many people would find it rather hard to swallow, but I don’t care. As a piece of literary history, it’s just fabulous. I can’t recommend this story highly enough: not only because it’s a great study of a murderer; not only because it’s a great study of motivation; it also has a fabulous twist at the end which is really well worth reading just for that. 

It’s not a long book – 320 odd pages. What is nice is that, at the back of it, there’s an afterword by Barry Forshaw, one of the foremost critics of crime writing today. 

What I must add is, if you’re interested in the golden age of crime writing, and especially in the history of the detection club, you really need to get hold of a copy of the Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, published by HarperCollins. This is an absolutely fascinating book which gives the interesting backgrounds of the Detection Club members in the thirties: Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Anthony Barkley Cox and all of the others. It’s a brilliant book, mainly because it’s superbly well researched and Martin has managed to turn it into a detective story of its own. It’s well worth having a look at, especially if you want to find out more about ABC Anthony Berkeley Cox.

So there you go Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles is a fantastic read. It’s a superbly written book and it is packaged in the most gorgeous fashion at a price, £9.99, which is only £1 more than a cheap paperback – vastly worth than that additional pound investment. All I can say now is that I’m going to go away and see how many other books I can buy from the Macmillan collectors library.

Summary: highly recommended.

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