Goodness, it’s been a while since my last Anthony Berkeley review. In fact, I think my last one was Before the Fact, a book that he’d written as Francis Iles. It gets plenty of praise from critics such as Julian Symons, but I honestly could not see any of the subtle characterization or intricately-constructed suspense that they praised, and the ending was just flat-out stupid. And this was back in 2011! What on earth happened? I remember thinking of Berkeley as one of my favourite authors, and I wasn’t consciously avoiding his work… And so, to remedy the situation, I decided to read Berkeley’s other famous Francis Iles thriller, Malice Aforethought.
Malice Aforethought begins with a practically perfect opening paragraph: “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.” That’s more or less all you need to know about the plot; this inverted detective-story shows you why Dr. Bickleigh decided to murder his wife, how he set about doing so (it’s an ingenious plot), and how he attempted to thwart off the resulting police investigation. The book is more of a thriller, as the reader wonders whether Dr. Bickleigh will get away with his crime.
It’s also tremendous fun to read, a rather black comedy of errors. For instance, Dr. Bickleigh becomes notorious in the village and becomes the subject of popular gossip and scandal, which is tremendous fun to read. I really enjoyed seeing the traditional “English country village” setting portrayed with sharp teeth, and everything to do with this aspect of the book is top-notch stuff.
There are a few minor problems with the book, but happily nothing on the level of Before the Fact. One of Dr. Bickleigh’s motives for killing his wife was your usual Other Woman, Madeleine. She can be rather annoying, although occasionally this is played for dark comedy – sometimes her shrewishness makes Mrs. Bickleigh look like a positive upgrade. When it’s taken seriously, though, it can be a chore to wade through.
I found the ending a bit obvious. As soon as I got a certain piece of information, I thought to myself, “Oh, [blank]’s going to happen, isn’t it?” And it did. It won’t be like that for everyone, but I do think that Berkeley has come up with more interesting endings than this one.
But these are minor issues. Not everyone will share my feelings on the ending or about the women in this book, and the black comedy elements are so delightful that it makes these complaints seem inconsequential. I can see why Malice Aforethought got the praise that it did for the sheer originality of what it was trying to do, but there are some flaws that don’t entirely last the test of time. Overall, though, it’s an excellent read and, for me, a much-needed antidote to the last Francis Iles book that I read.