Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Trial by Stupidity

I love the stuff written by Anthony Berkeley, and was looking forward to reacquainting myself with his work. I decided to go with something written under his Francis Iles pseudonym: Before the Fact, which was adapted into the Hitchcock film Suspicion. However, I hesitate to call Before the Fact a mystery at all, since the only mystery is just how stupid the heroine is.

Lina McLaidlaw marries Johnnie Aysgarth, despite the warnings from her family, particularly her father, who says the Aysgarth clan is rotten stock. But Lina believes she can rehabilitate little Johnnie— he’s her little child and she so desperately wants what’s best for him. Of course, unknown to her, Johnnie is a murderer, something we find out in the very first paragraph of the book. And at first, Before the Fact is an excellent portrayal of an insecure woman desperately clinging to a love affair, no matter how unhealthy and unwise it is for her. That lasts about eight chapters.

Then something happens. To start Chapter 9, a major plot twist has occurred, and it seems like Lina is falling in love with another man. He’s kind to her, attentive, genuinely loves her, and sacrifices a lot for her. He’s the perfect man for her, but that doesn’t matter. Johnnie shows up on stage, smiles at her, and she drops everything to follow him. And why? Because… well, God alone knows. (Does this sound familiar? By gum, it's the plot of Twilight!) It is from this point forward that Lina develops Idiot Heroine Syndrome, doing and saying the most extraordinarily stupid things. When she finds out Johnnie is a murderer, she actually obtains physical proof of this crime. What does she do with it? Why, destroy it (of course!) and convince herself that it wasn’t really murder! Johnnie isn't the one who belongs in the loony bin...

It’s obvious this is a woman only good for dying. Anthony Berkeley was a misanthrope in general, but his misogyny is more pronounced than usual. He seems to genuinely hate Lina, and he takes some absurd pseudo-psychology laughably seriously. Words fail me to describe the sheer stupidity of the ending. Hitchcock had incredible talent and could turn the silliest stories into compelling films— I’m sad to see that this book is one of those silly stories. As Curt Evans put it, the book is in need of a subtitle: The Story of a Very Stupid Woman Who Deserved All She Ultimately Got, Really.

Am I being too harsh on the character? I don’t think so. She’s a manipulative little pig who puts on the innocent victim act, and by the end of the book, becomes so incredibly dense that all I wanted to do was slap her. Berkeley might as well have written in a scene where she muses:

"Oh, but Johnnie wouldn't kill me. Not he. He loves me. Of course, there was that one incident a week ago where he asked me for money and I sharply refused to let him have it. And he's been ever so furtive since then. He was most pale last night when I caught him sharpening the knives in the kitchen. So silly of my darling little Johnnie to worry about having done that wrong. I’ll simply have to take the cost of the knives out of his allowance and put further financial strain on the poor boy. Though of course for the life of me I can't understand why he didn't just let Cook do it. Darling, darling Johnnie! He loves me. Of course he does! Why wouldn’t he? He’d never murder me!"

This of course means that the book is a masterpiece by Julian Symons standards. I quote from Bloody Murder: “Iles’ method is so much more subtle [than Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ or R. Austin Freeman’s approach to the inverted murder story] that his work is really non-comparable. … The slow revelation of the villain’s character in Before the Fact is beautifully done. … The only criticism that might be made of these outstandingly original books is that they have just occasionally an air of contrivance out of keeping with their generally realistic tone.” (Bloody Murder, 2nd ed.) To be fair to Symons, he includes Malice Aforethought, which might deserve this praise. But Before the Fact is silly nonsense. There’s nothing realistic about Lina’s complete stupidity. The writing is as subtle as a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, minus the fun factor. There’s nothing slow about the revelation of the villain’s character—we know it from the start. And what’s this ever-so-occasional air of contrivance? You mean that little part of the book after the eighth chapter? Oh yes, completely negligible, that. Truly, there is no comparison between this book and R. Austin Freeman’s The Singing Bone. Unfortunately, I disagree entirely with Symons about the reason for there being no possible grounds for comparison.

If you want a clever inverted murder story, skip this book. The beginning is grand—the opening paragraph, in fact, is practically perfect. But that’s the problem— the book is so good to start with that its crash is all the mightier. The characters, particularly the insipid Lina, become annoying. You begin to hope the killer just gets on with it already. The ending is the antithesis of cleverness—this is far below Anthony Berkeley’s usually high standard. I’m just glad I found this book in a library—I’d be most upset if I actually paid to read it. For my part, Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive and the stories in R. Austin Freeman’s The Singing Bone remain the best inverted murder stories I’ve ever read. I recommend them any day over this poorly-done mess. For the life of me I can’t understand this book’s high reputation.


  1. Thanks for the heads up. I loved Malice Aforethought, and I've been looking for this book for a while now. Have you seen Suspicion? The studio forced Hitchcock to change the ending, but the last minute is so rushed it's almost laughable.

  2. I have to agree with all of this. I read the book many years ago, and by the end I was practically screaming 'GO TO THE POLICE!' at the heroine. It's interesting to compare this with GASLIGHT, where you actually sympathise with the heroine. Lina is so thoroughly stupid that the book moves from melodrama and almost into black comedy (I remember a sketch on a radio comedy where a just married wife is told by her husband "Don't go into the spare bedroom, the guest bedroom, the study, the library, the kitchen, the attic...etc, etc". The wife replies "Of course not, dear. By the way, what ever did happen to your 27 previous wives?"

  3. Like I said on the GAD group, I agree totally with this assessment. You just lose all sympathy with Lina at a certain point.

    I don't know what Cox was really trying to do with Lina. I got the impression Cox was enjoying portraying the agonies of an incredibly stupid and dense woman (Sextonblake's black comedy), but a lot of critics have read this book as if it's a nerve-wracking, serious tale of suspense. It's really not.

    It will be interesting to see what you make of Malice Aforethought. I think it's definitely the better of the two, although even it is a bit overrated, perhaps. There's a very high level of facetiousness in Cox's books, which I think is fine in the Berkeleys but detracts somewhat from the Iles.

  4. @Christopher
    "Suspicion" is a film I've yet to see, but isn't it obvious what the studio's changed ending is? You have Cary Grant playing a psychotic murderer? I don't think they'd let that happen...

    I stopped shouting those words at her after the little idiot destroyed evidence. After she did that, she was on her own. I particularly hated the way she behaved towards the "other" man, acting as though she was entitled to his affections and putting him through suffering he never deserved. Truly, she deserved what she got.

    @The Passing Tramp
    I personally lost all sympathy after she chucks everything to go to Johnny. I actually thought Berkeley was going for a supremely dark and brilliant twist with that plot thread, but was disappointed by the resolution. It ends up being quite a silly book.

    MALICE AFORETHOUGHT certainly seems the more popular of the two! There was even a recent film adaptation, was there not?

  5. You should try C.S. Forester's inverted crime novels. They are among my favorites. Particularly PAYMENT DEFERRED which was published in 1926 several years before Berkley was getting credit for having invented the genre in novel form.

    The most recent adapatation for UK TV (and later shown on the US PBS program "Masterpiece") of MALICE AFORETHOUGHT was very well done, though I'm not sure if it is 100% faithful. It should be on DVD since everything that shows up on PBS is released on DVD.

  6. I agree with John on Forester.

    "Malice Aforethought" was one of the very early "Mystery" series films on PBS in the U.S. (like thirty years ago) and there was also the more recent adaptation, as John mentions.

  7. I have not read this book, but I shuddered at the comparison with Twilight. It's hard to believe that a writer like Anthony Berkeley could pen a GAD equivalent of that.

    As for good inverted mysteries, I recommend you start watching Columbo (especially episodes like "Try and Catch Me" and "Any Old Port in a Storm").

  8. @John
    Thanks for the recommendation. What's this? The library has the book? I've placed a hold now.

    @The Passing Tramp
    I was not able to find that older version, but I found the remake all right.

    Believe me, the comparison pained me. Berkeley had more intelligence in his left toe than Stephanie Meyer has altogether. But the stupidity of their heroines in terms of romantic interest is identical. There's being in love, then there's being Lina Aysgarth. After a point, you don't even care anymore-- just let her get herself killed, you think to yourself. She deserves it!

  9. Not wishing to defend the Twilight series, but, as a teacher at a girls' school, I can positively say that for the target audience, the books certainly hit the spot. I wouldn't go near them, obviously, and have only witnessed the films due to my good lady wife's mild obsession, but if they get people reading, so much the better. Although I do agree that Bella is a dreadful role model, at least she's a stronger female character than Hermione "Exposition" Granger.

    Ahem, in an attempt to get back on topic, great review. I will avoid this book like the plague.

  10. @Puzzle Doctor
    I actually wasted a week of my life reading the series. My brain nearly melted, but I can mock it much more effectively now. I have to entirely disagree with you. Not only is the writing some of the worst I've ever come across (Meyer seems to have opened the dictionary, found the word "chagrin", and decided it sounded literary), I must emphatically argue that Bella is *not* a stronger female character than Hermione Granger-- she's a dreadful one. She's whining, possessive, manipulative, etc. and worst of all is a transparent wish-fulfillment figure for the author herself. My biggest problem is that when she can't be with her boyfriend, she actually endangers her life to see him, even jumping of a cliff!!! What kind of message does that send to young girls???

    Now we return to our regularly-scheduled programming...

    I just hope it doesn't put you off Berkeley in general. He's really an author worth reading-- this is just one strange exception.