Francis Iles’s Malice Aforethought

Anthony Berkeley Cox used a number of pseudonyms; his two most famous were Anthony Berkeley and Francis Iles. His best mystery novel as Berkeley was The Poisoned Chocolates Case (see my blog); as Iles, Malice Aforethought. A journalist and reviewer, he wrote pieces for Punch, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, and other well-known publications. What Anthony Berkeley Cox remains most famous for is founding the prestigious Detection Club in 1928. The idea that readers should have access to the same clues as the detective formed the basis of the Detection Club’s rules of fair play. Some of the most celebrated mystery writers of the day belonged to this club and swore an oath to abide by its rules.

Chosen as one of the Crime Writers Association’ Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, Malice Aforethought is the story of a country doctor who plans and executes a lethal crime. The first sentence of the novel is an arresting one: “It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter” (7). The fact that an ordinary doctor leading an uneventful life is capable of cold-blooded murder immediately captures the reader’s attention. When it was first published, the opening of the novel caused a “literary furor” by immediately revealing the identity of the murderer (Berlins 2008).

As in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (see my blog), Malice Aforethought is told entirely from the killer’s perspective; we follow the planning and execution of the deed from the moment the murderer first conceives the idea. Iles is particular skilled at drawing a “powerful portrait of a mind slowly disintegrating under intolerable stress” (Shepherd and Rennison 2006, 83). “In some ways,” observes Knight, “the book is a demonic Crime and Punishment” (2004, 101). Unlike Dostoyevsky’s novel though, the tone is light, even playful, at times.

The gradual progression of events from normal to abnormal, from ordinary to extraordinary is cleverly depicted. Iles was a pioneer of the modern psychological crime story, a writer who delved into “the neurotic anxieties and dangerous fantasies of a mild-mannered husband and doctor turned callous murderer: the combination of Dr. Bickleigh’s actual insignificance and his private murderous hyperconfidence is highly effective” (Knight 2004, 101). At one point in the story, Iles writes, “Dr Bickleigh felt like a hero. Damn it all, he was a hero. There were precious few people who could get away with a killing like that” (302). Such glimpses into the deranged thinking of the protagonist provide us with insights into the criminal psyche.

Dr. Bickleigh’s act is fostered by the small-town world of petty gossip which shapes his thinking and limits his choices. The fascination of this novel lies in the “interplay of character and the air of suburban or small-time normality with which Iles invests the whole thing” (Symons 1992, 140).

The Times claims that “it is Berkeley’s books as Francis Iles (including the influential Before the Fact) that are his finest, foregrounding psychology and underplaying the synthetic ‘puzzle’ elements of the crime novel” (Berlins 2008). Readers who enjoy classic British mysteries and psychological crime novels will find just what they are looking for in Malice Aforethought.

Berlins, Marcel. “The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.

Iles, Francis. Malice Aforethought. 1931. London: Orion, 2005.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Shephard, Richard and Nick Rennison. “Francis Iles (1893-1997): Malice Aforethought.” In 100 Must-Read Crime Fiction Novels. London: A & C Black, 2006, 83-84.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.