This week’s post comes to us from Martin Edwards: solicitor, crime writer and all around enthusiast for the genre and its history, a fact evidenced by his 2007 appointment as the archivist of the Crime Writers Association and his weekly contributions to Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme (which, if you’ve not yet discovered it, is a veritable treasure trove of suggestions for the crime fiction fan with an interest in books published before last week).
Maxine was a thoughtful and perceptive reviewer, someone who looked for positive things to say about a book, but who was fair and balanced whenever she expressed a reservation. As a result, words of praise from her meant a great deal to me and, I am sure, to the many other writers who benefited from both her critical insight and her generosity.
In remembering Maxine, I’d like to talk about a book which I first read as a teenager and have returned to several times in the intervening years. It’s often cited as a classic of the genre, and with good reason. The title is MALICE AFORETHOUGHT, and it was published in 1931 by Francis Iles. This was a pen-name, and Iles’ identity was kept secret, and much debated, for a couple of years (surely this wouldn’t be possible in the internet age?) before it was revealed that Iles was in fact Anthony Berkeley, a successful writer of innovative Golden Age detective novels, often featuring an amateur sleuth, Roger Sheringham, who was far from infallible. In turn, Anthony Berkeley was the main pseudonym used by Anthony Berkeley Cox, one of the most enigmatic of all crime writers.
The tone of the book is set in the famous opening paragraph:
“It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest step may be disastrous. Dr. Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.”
Bickleigh, henpecked by his wife Julia, is a meek fellow with an inferiority complex and Iles presents his increasingly dangerous behaviour with cynicism and wit:
“From what he had seen of marriage he did not doubt that most married men spend no small part of their lives devising wistful plans for killing off their wives – if only they had the courage to do it.”
Bickleigh reads de Quincey, and on the whole agrees with him:
“Murder could be a fine art: but it was not for everyone. Murder was a fine art for the superman. It was a pity that Nietzsche could not have developed de Quincey’s propositions. Dr Bickleigh had no doubt whatever that in murder he had qualified, not only as a fine artist, but as a superman.”
When the doctor becomes infatuated with an heiress, he resolves to do away with Julia, and the story of what happens next is fascinating . It’s also very cleverly plotted, so I must be careful not to give too much away. The story has been adapted for television a couple of times, most splendidly in the Seventies, with Hywel Bennett cast as Bickleigh.
I don’t’ know if Maxine ever read MALICE AFORETHOUGHT but I suspect that if she did, she found Iles’ writing as entertaining as his protagonist’s behaviour is reprehensible. In its day, the story was regarded as ground-breaking, with its focus on a murderer’s psychology rather than the process of detection. More than eighty years later, Iles’s masterpiece still reads well, and that, I think Maxine would have agreed, is as good a test as any of the quality of a crime novel.
Martin Edwards is a practicing solicitor and crime writer with over 40 short stories and novels published. He blogs reviews and opinions related to crime writing, reading and watching at Do You Write Under Your Own Name? and his website is brimming with information about his own work and that of authors he admires.