Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

Francis Iles
Malice Aforethought

This is the final one for me to read from the ‘four essential mystery stories’ as listed by Sinclair Lewis (the others being Bleak House by Charles Dickens, The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes, and Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers). The book begins very enticingly with 'It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Naturally his decision did not arrive ready-made. It evolved gradually, the fruit of much wistful cogitation'.

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles available on Amazon
 Kindle  Hardback
 Paperback

This is the final one for me to read from the ‘four essential mystery stories’ as listed by Sinclair Lewis (the others being Bleak House by Charles Dickens, The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes, and Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers). The book begins very enticingly with ‘It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Naturally his decision did not arrive ready-made. It evolved gradually, the fruit of much wistful cogitation’. 

So Sinclair Lewis, an American novelist who died in 1951, stated about his ‘four essential mystery stories’ that they were “…authentic literature, shrewd and competent writing with that power of suggesting more than is said, of awakening the emotions and the imagination”. I can see why this book is in the list, as it is unusual in that the reader knows the murderer from the start so it is more of a psychological suspence than a whodunnit, and from what I’ve learnt this book was one of the first to take this approach. It is a fascinating read being an insight into what influences a (fictional!) murderer, and the twist at the end is clever when the reader isn’t expecting it. The book stayed in my mind throughout reading it and I kept trying to second-guess what would happen.

I liked the dry humour in the book ‘the two ladies whom Mrs Torr had determinedly held in the rose garden…were at last released, and streaked for the deckchairs and the shade like two terriers released’. And ‘Miss Wapsworthy had passed the age when she could appear on a tennis court, and though Miss Peavy did not privately think that she had, it had been borne in upon her that others did’. And “My wife, do you mean?” Mr Torr’s tone was unflatteringly dubious’. And I’m sad to say, Julia (the murdered wife) clearly has no redeeming features and is completely unlikeable, as ‘not being a reader herself, Julia always seemed to make a point of letting anyone else do so for no more than five minutes without interruption’, I don’t know if Edmund needed more motive than that, tee hee!

The story starts with Dr Edmund Bickleigh’s wife, Julia, nagging him to rush around doing various jobs in readiness for a garden party she has arranged, regardless of the fact he has been busy working that day. Julia is from a socially important family, the Crewstantons, and regularly reminds Edmund that she married beneath her, she also fits the typical bossy wife characteristics in books by being older than him and taller than him and them having no children. They live in Wyvern’s Cross in Devon, and the party has been thrown to introduce new resident, 22 year old rich and single Miss Madeleine Cranmere, to the neighbourhood, although she has already caused some disapproval by moving into The Hall and proposing to live there alone with no aunt or friends with her, Julia and the priest Rev Hessary Torr are determined to advise her about the impropriety of this (so it all seems to be brewing nicely into a scene of resentment!).

It is known by the neighbours that Edmund very much admires Gwynyfryd Rattery. Over the ten years he has been married to Julia, he has regularly felt an attraction for other women and been convinced each was the woman he should have married and has flirted with each and tried to tempt them into a relationship, he is successful in most of these attempts but not with Gwynyfryd who seems shocked and offended at his advances. After being rejected by her, he returns to the garden party and is immediately ordered by Julia in a bossy voice to complete a menial task, he feels humiliated infront of all the others and this coming straight after his humiliation from Gwynyfred, makes him angry and he determines to kill his wife, he knows divorcing her would not be a possibility and would ruin his social standing so he feels killing her is the only option. 

Edmund is aware he has an inferiority complex, being a short man and coming from trade as his father was a chemist, he was educated to be a doctor and has kept hidden his father’s trade from the neighbours but in their Devon village a person’s gentility and family and social standing is very highly valued, and he is conscious he has not been to Oxford or Cambridge or has a high-standing family going back generations, and obviously his wife reminds him on a daily basis that he is socially inadequate to her and not a gentleman. All this background is interesting, and I presume attempts to demonstrate to the reader how Edmund has found himself in the position of seriously contemplating murdering his wife and the pressures and unhappiness and feelings of inferiority and unfairness of life that he feels, and which have been many years in the making that brought him to this position (I wondered if we were going to end up feeling sorry for him and hoping he would escape detection).

He has had various affairs with women, he is currently having an affair with Ivy, though he wanted to drop her for Gwynyfred, Ivy suspected this and demanded to meet him and during her pleadings the thought went twice through his head that he could kill her in this lonely spot they have met in. He is then shocked at himself for thinking this (this made me wonder if he may kill several women, not just his wife). He then gets to know Madeleine Cranmere, she makes him feel important and listens to him and praises him, and he begins an affair with her. Julia tells him he can’t see Madeleine again, that she won’t tolerate him having an affair with her, like he has with the other women. Edmund had never been sure if Julia knew about his affairs or not. He disobeys Julia and continues to see Madeleine.

Julia has a headache one evening and asks Edmund for some tablets from his dispensary, he crushes up two morphia tablets in a glass of water for her as he wants her to go to bed and leave him in peace, and then decides to add two more (I began to wonder if this how he would murder her).

Oooh, the tension is cranking up! Ivy tells Edmund she is pregnant with his baby, he is angry and shocked and alarmed at what Madeleine will say about this and how this could damage their relationship. He firstly suggests to Ivy that she must have been with someone else and then suggests he operate on her to abort the child, she refuses, and he remembers his thought the other day about killing her and begins to decide he will do this now. Then Ivy tells him she isn’t actually pregnant but just told him so in order to test if he loves her or not, which she now knows he doesn’t. He punches her in the face and leaves. He is later alarmed at the intensity of his rage. Later, Julia intimates she wants to discuss with Edmund that evening his continued visits to The Hall, he wishes she had a headache again so he could administer the morphia to send her to sleep early, then decides to give her some trial medication he received a few years ago that wasn’t used as it caused violent headaches, he gives this to her and it succeeds in giving her a headache, so he then administers the morphia and she goes to bed without having the discussion. There feels such tension underlying everything in the book (I began to wonder just who Edmund would kill, if indeed he kills anyone. It seemed to be looking like Julia, but then there is his annoyance at Ivy, and if Madeleine refuses him after he has built her up in his mind into such an ideal woman I could potentially see him snapping and killing her, it almost makes me feel quite nervous reading the book just waiting for him to snap and act). 

He is becoming obsessed by Madeleine and convinces himself he will commit suicide if she finishes with him. She does tell him she can’t bear the dishonesty to Julia and they must finish, but then seems to relent in the face of his pleading (I began to feel fearful for her if she does split with him). He decides to tell Julia about his love for Madeleine, she questions how this is different to his other affairs, which she then lists so the reader can see how many women there have been (and this did cause me to alter my opinion about Edmund, he is not quite the beaten-down innocent man he first appeared), she says she has never loved him and will agree to divorce him if he and Madeleine still feel the same about each other in a year’s time, but that he will have to support herself by paying an allowance and he has to think about how he will earn enough to do this as well as supporting himself and Madeleine, particularly if his practice is damaged by the divorce. He is overjoyed and grateful to her. She says however that although he and Madeleine can see each other as much as they wish, they cannot sleep together during that time. The fact that Madeleine is rich and he could actually be living at The Hall seems to now first enter Edmund’s mind. It then begins to seem like Madeleine is playing with him, she is angry that Edmund told Julia about them and then says she could never marry a divorced man as people would gossip, and Edmund doesn’t seem able to argue or reason with her. Julia goes to see Madeleine, and tells Edmund afterwards that Madeleine is a hypocrite and is untruthful and has no feelings for him and is just amusing herself and is flirting with Denny and is just acting the whole time, Julia goes on to say she won’t divorce him as it doesn’t seem fair to let him be manipulated by this woman and make himself unhappy, though she is prepared to keep her promise in future if Edmund meets a nice girl. Edmund believes none of this about Madeleine and tells himself he will kill Julia. He doesn’t view this himself as murder but sees it as just as the only inevitable course open to him, he is also determined to find the perfect undetectable method of doing this, in order to ensure he is superior to other men by being successful and not being caught. All this is fascinating and allows the reader see these thoughts and ponder if we can understand his justifications for his proposed actions, and it feels like we are also being prompted to try and understand how a seemingly normal person could contemplate murder and be comfortable with their actions (although then I am surprised it’s not written in the first person, as we have Edmund’s thoughts but they are distanced from us as we are being told what he thinks rather than him telling us what he thinks, I’m intrigued why this distance was put in place and it was written like this. Or does this method of not using the first person then remove the risk of an unreliable narrator, as because Edmund’s thoughts are stated ‘he felt, he thought, he planned’ then is there less doubt in the reader’s mind that these thoughts are accurate and what Edmund truly feels). He decides to continue with his morphia plan but tells Julia that it is an aid to her headaches and gradually gets her addicted to it. He then takes her to a specialist who can find no cause for her headaches but recommends a change of diet. Edmund then tells her he can’t give her any more morphia injections as he fears she is getting addicted, he is firm in his continuing refusal and he then leaves the house on a made-up case and comes back to find Julia has done as he had hoped and injected the morphia herself. Next time she goes to the large town he sends her to the chemist with a signed order for several medications including a large order of morphia, he then speaks to Julia’s sister and brother explaining about her addiction and her injecting herself secretly and says that he’s discovered Julia has faked his signature in order to obtain a large order of morphia, he urges the sister to look at the puncture marks on Julia’s arm and she confirms she has seen these, and he suggests Julia needs to go and stay in a care home for a while. He is also genuinely distressed at the pain Julia is in with the headaches, and begins to view it himself that killing her is putting her out of her misery and also, in quite a black humour way, he himself is feeling the strain of seeing her in so much pain and he has to force himself to sprinkle the headache medication over her food, so he is keen to kill her soon so this can be over.

(Omg, omg, he’s done it, he’s killed her!! I began to doubt if he actually would, we seemed to be so far into the book before it happened). He sneaks back to the house after saying he was going on his rounds, and waits in his surgery knowing Julia will come in for her morphia, she does and he agrees to give it to her saying he knows she’s not had any for some time, he fills the syringe with an overdose amount, gives the syringe to her to hold briefly so her fingerprints are on it, then injects her and tells her to go to bed, knowing she will shortly be dead. He sneaks back to where he has left the car and it won’t start and he sees Ivy approaching, but he quickly decides this will be a good alibi and tells her he’s been trying for ten minutes to start the car and asks her for the time. He then goes on his rounds, congratulating himself on what he has achieved, realising he has always been fearful of Julia and felt inferior to her and this is what has led him to kill her, but that he feels inferior no longer. He heads to The Hall to be greeted by Denny who tells him that he and Madeleine are engaged and that she never really cared for Edmund but just felt under his power when she was with him, she has written him a note to this effect. He storms into The Hall to confront Madeleine, he grabs her and she says he is hurting her, he tells her Julia is dead and she starts screaming, the parlourmaid then arrives to say there’s been a phone call from Dr Bickleigh’s house and it’s bad news, which makes Madeleine scream even more (omg, surely he’s messed up here, he’s effectively told Madeleine that he killed Julia, as how could he have known she was dead before it was announced by the parlourmaid, and he’s killed Julia in order to gain Madeleine and now Madeleine doesn’t want him! I can’t imagine what will happen now). 

It is 13 months later and Edmund is living his life in Wyvern’s Cross enjoying his independence and doing as he wishes, grateful that he is alone and rid of both Julia, and also Madeleine as she is with Denny. There is a tea party with the neighbours and they are gossiping about Julia’s death saying the coroner should have investigated more and that they can’t believe Julia was addicted to drugs and suspecting she committed suicide due to Edmund having an affair with Madeleine. Ivy and her husband, William Chatford, are there, he hates Edmund after he discovered that Ivy was Edmund’s lover before she married him, and he also makes Ivy’s life a misery by constantly making her feel guilty for this. William is a solicitor, and goes to the local priest and to Scotland Yard and to Madeleine for more information about Julia’s death. Madeleine is now married to Denny, and repeats the story she has told the villagers that she was seduced by Edmund but came to her senses in time. Ivy asks to meet Edmund and informs him of William’s hatred for him and his determination to investigate Julia’s death. Edmund isn’t seriously worried about William’s investigations but enjoys secretly punishing him by seducing Ivy again and getting her to pass him information on William, Edmund also reminds Ivy of the time she saw him with the car on the day of Julia’s death. He decides to murder both Madeleine and William as he hates them both and is confident in his superiority to avoid detection, he feels like a superman with his subtle and clever schemes to avoid detection and views with scorn those murderers who employ brutal methods like guns and knives, he views himself as an artist and is slightly regretful he can’t show his artistic triumph in murder to others. One of his patients, a young boy, contracts and dies from botulism food poisoning, he breeds a culture of this and then invites Madeleine and Denny and William to tea, he tells William he wants to discuss legal matters and tells Madeleine and Denny he wants to put the past behind them and become friends (hmmm, it did seem a little strange to me, him inviting Madeleine and William to the same tea, I’d have thought both would think it odd to see the other one there. This is explained a little though, by Edmund telling William that Madeleine and Denny just dropped in and this then interfered with their planned legal chat. Also, when William questioned Madeleine about Julia’s death, did she not mention the fact that Edmund seemed to know Julia was dead before it was announced to him, has Madeleine never mentioned this to anyone or seen the significance of this? And has Edmund forgotten too that he said it? Is this the author not tying things up well enough, or does William accept the invitation to tea in order to try and discover more evidence against Edmund?). Edmund spreads the botulism culture on two of the potted meat sandwiches and presents these on the side of the plate he offers to Madeleine and William. He is cold and remorseless when he watches them eat death, thinking they deserve this more than Julia did and even saying to himself that it was Madeleine who effectively caused Julia’s death, and he is smug and self congratulatory afterwards with his plan to ask the housekeeper if the jar of potted meat smells a little strange and insisting it should be thrown out immediately and then putting a little of the botulism culture into the jar. Madeleine is ill but recovers and Edmund decides she can be allowed to live, but he is determined that William will die and after phoning the house and learning William is ill he asks if he can visit or treat him, planning to then administer more of the botulism culture, but is denied access which infuriates him. 

Meanwhile a detective from Scotland Yard comes to Edmund’s house, he is very apologetic but says he has to investigate some rumours about his wife’s death. Edmund is firstly shocked, but then feels his superiority and cleverness in comparison with the police officer (I began to wonder if this self-confidence could actually trip him up). The police officer asks lots of detailed questions about the morphia and Julia’s access to it, he takes away the note she took to the chemist with Edmund’s supposedly forged signature on it, he also questions Edmund’s movements that day and Edmund shows his log of the patients and mentions seeing Ivy in the road, the police officer also asks if there is arsenic on the premises and if Julia could have taken this, he also searches the house and goes up in the attic where the incubator containing the botulism culture is, although he seems not to notice this. Edmund, feeling over-confident, tells the police officer that he knows it is William spreading these rumours and tells him about the affair with Ivy and the information Ivy has brought to him, and asks if he should bring a case against William for slander. Edmund congratulates himself on his cleverness, but later that night is full of self-doubt and terror feeling certain he has given himself away and that the police suspect him of murder, hence the arsenic questions, and that he will hang. It is interesting that he has these feelings of self-doubt and panic, though they are gone the next morning. He debates whether he is being foolish and putting himself in danger trying to pursue getting into William’s bedroom to administer more of the botulism culture, but decides he must. He goes to William’s GP, Lydston, who firstly presumes Edmund has come because the police officer has also spoken to Lydston about his examination of Julia both before and after death, but Edmund brushes over this as he is so fixated on gaining access to William. Lydston is offended at Edmund’s enquiries about his treatment of his patient, but Edmund goes on to say that he and Madeleine both felt unwell after the tea party and he self-treated himself and is keen to judge William’s symptoms and offer suggestions if they are the same as his were. Lydston again refuses, but then later phones Edmund up saying he and William have agreed that Edmund can visit him. Edmund puts the botulism culture in a capsule. When Edmund visits William, he looks very ill. Edmund explains his botulism idea and says how he treated himself and gives Lydston the capsule to give to William which he does (oooh, I began getting a feeling of dread here, and ridiculously felt very tense and on edge and with my stomach in knots as was worrying that somehow William knew Edmund had tried to poison him and was letting him incriminate himself more and more. I don’t see quite how William could have guessed, but it is odd that he has sent Ivy away suddenly to apparently visit relatives in Spain, and that William firmly refused admittance to Edmund and has now agreed, as Lydston firstly refused and then agreed. And Edmund seems to be putting himself at risk and not thinking as clearly and calmly and calculatingly as he did before, he is acting impulsively and saying things impulsively with his eagerness and over-confidence, I was even feeling apprehensive at reading further and seeing Edmund get caught). Edmund begins to think that Lydston must be killed. This really is brilliant writing, it draws you in and racks up the tension.  

Edmund realises the only evidence against him is the incubator and goes to the attic to destroy this. But it is gone! His housekeeper says someone came today to fix the cistern, so this must have been the police. Edmund begins to panic again, going over what he said to Lydston. The police arrive and spend hours taking a detailed statement from him, questioning him about Julia and about William and Madeleine being ill. He is confident with the answers he gives, even stating he was sending away a botulism culture in a capsule for testing, presumably covering himself in case they know of the capsule given to William so Edmund could say these must have somehow got accidentally switched. However, Edmund is arrested for attempting to murder William and Madeleine by administering poison germs, and murdering his wife! 

The story then moves to his trial with him alternately feeling despair and then hope regarding the verdict. His lawyer manages to dispense with Madeleine’s testimony of Edmund knowing Julia had died before he could have officially known, by calling into question other statements she’d made that were shown to be exaggerations or lies, and painting her out to be slightly insane. Julia’s body is exhumed and she is shown to have died of a morphia overdose, not arsenical poisoning as the police suspected. However there are traces of elements from the drug Edmund had given her to bring on her headaches, but his lawyer dispenses with this by saying Edmund had openly bought more of this drug and was using it to try to treat Julia’s headaches with. It is also mentioned that Madeleine’s husband, Denny, has been ill and then dies with typhoid, Edmund presumes he contracted typhoid due to the poor sanitation and drainage at the Hall which he had warned Madeleine about many times. 

The jury is then told that the germs in Edmund’s incubator aren’t botulism, but other forms of germs (I did get confused here with the germs, was Edmund wrong about the boy dying of botulism, did he die of something else that Edmund had then saved in the culture?). This seems to help clear Edmund of the charge of trying to poison William, as Edmund’s suggestion to Lydston that William had botulism appears to just be a mistaken assumption on Edmund’s part. However, it appears William and Lydston had suspected Edmund of murdering Julia by arsenical poisoning and then suspected that Edmund had given Madeleine and William arsenic too at the tea party, and that they were urged to attend the tea party by the police so as to allay suspicions from Edmund that he was being investigated for Julia’s death (I was confused here as to whether William and Madeleine deliberately ate the sandwiches suspecting they were poisoned in order to gain proof against Edmund, though it seems a huge risk to eat poisoned food unless they had an antidote they could take and even then it would surely still be very risky, or did they not suspect at all that someone they believed had murdered his wife would not attempt to murder anyone else, namely them?). It also appears that Lydston deliberately falsely described Willam’s symptoms to Edmund as arsenical poisoning in the hope of encouraging Edmund to give himself away. 

The trial is quite dramatic to read as I found myself rooting for Edmund and being scared he would be found guilty (I even had to put my hand over the facing page so my eye didn’t sneak a peek at whether the jury announced him guilty or not guilty!). Edmund is found not guilty of murdering his wife! But he is then arrested and executed for the murder of Denny by poisoning him with typhoid, this seems to be because the germs that Edmund had grown in the culture which he thought was botulism were actually typhoid. So a hugely ironical twist at the end that Edmund escapes justice for the murder and attempted murders he did commit, and is then found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit (at least, I presumed Edmund didn’t poison Denny with typhoid, as he had been so honest with the reader as to all his other murderous intentions, that he would surely have mentioned this plan).  

Hmmm, I felt dissatisfied at the ending, it seemed unnecessarily complicated and confusing with the types of germs, I think I’d just have preferred the end to be that Edmund got away with his crimes and the reader is left wondering if he ever attempted murder again. I got completely confused about the germs in Edmund’s incubator, and as all this seemed crucial to the ending I then felt a little frustrated by this. So the boy died of typhoid not botulism, so Edmund took typhoid germs from the boy not the botulism germs he thought they were, he then tried to poison William and Madeleine with what he thought was botulism but what William suspected was arsenic but was actually typhoid? And because Denny coincidentally dies of typhoid, it is presumed that Edmund tried to poison William and Madeleine and also Denny with typhoid and the twist is that he is then accused of Denny’s murder which is the only one he didn’t commit or attempt to commit? Maybe I’ll have to read the trial bit again, as it was tense and I was racing through it so maybe I missed crucial information.

I was continually fascinated by Edmund’s character and how the reader gradually learns his character and how this alters throughout the book, or rather these characteristics are perhaps potentially always there but have been concealed by Edmund up to this point and perhaps develop as Edmund adapts to the situations he faces. The reader first sees Edmund as the other neighbours see him with the side of himself he wants to show, and then the reader is privy to his thoughts and feelings so gets to know the real him, and it is very effective having this ‘real’ him come out gradually rather than right there from the beginning. At the start of the book, Edmund seems like someone deserving of our pity as he is humiliated and made to feel inadequate by his bossy wife, while always being polite and considerate to her in return. We then learn about the social inequalities in his marriage, and are presented with the ambitious and driven and self-serving side of him and begin to suspect that he perhaps married Julia to achieve better social standing and money. Then we learn about his numerous affairs, and are presented with the sneaky and lying side of him and also his careless side displayed to the women he drops when he falls for the next woman. Then there are his feelings of rage against Ivy and his contemplation of killing her and him punching her in the face, so we are presented with the violent and coldly determined side of him. Then we see how he acts with Madeleine, being infatuated and bossed around and blinded by her, so we are presented with the foolish and gullible side of him. Then we see his feelings of superiority, viewing himself like a ‘superman’ for getting away with Julia’s murder, so we are presented with the arrogant and egotistical and also self-delusional side of him with the way he convinces himself that Julia’s end is actually a kindnes, as well as obviously the murderous side of him! Then we see him manipulating poor Ivy again in order to gain information about her husband’s suspicions against him and also abusing her to make himself feel superior by treating her like the doormat he used to be treated as by Julia, so we are presented with the spiteful and malicious side of him. Then we see him attempting to kill Madeleine and William and being self-congratulatory and smug afterwards, so we are presented with the dangerously arrogant and egotistical side of him, overwhelmed at the power he can wield to determine if people live or die. Then we see him patronising towards the police officer, and begin to anticipate his downfall caused by his own self-belief and confidence. It is very very clever how the author gradually, step by step, changes the picture of Edmund and lets him degenerate infront of our eyes. And yet very very clever how the author also encouraged a part of me to still like Edmund and be entertained and fascinated by him and all the facets of his character, somehow he didn’t seem out and out evil, he still had a charm, and I found myself almost concerned about pitfalls he could face and worrying that he would make a mistake and be caught! 

We are familiar with books now that reveal the murderer from the beginning, but I can imagine this book caused quite a storm when it first came out being one of the first to do this.

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles available on Amazon
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