Before the Fact (1932) by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley)

beforethefact♦♦♦♦½

I picked this up at a second-hand shop because I was planning to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation, Suspicion, and when I can I prefer to read the book first. I’d never heard of it before I saw it on the shelf. Certainly I never expected it to be so marvellously enjoyable. First Marnie, now this: the Brits and their “crime” novels have won me over.

The crime in this case is really a series of progressively more serious transgressions, beginning with petty theft and ending with a suspicion of murder. The criminal is Johnny Aysgarth, a young, attractive, carefree man who is both immature and damnably likeable. But this isn’t, in fact, Johnny’s story. It is Lina’s, Johnny’s slightly older wife, who married Johnny against her father’s advice. Her father could see that Johnny was “rotten”; told from an early age how plain she was, Lina couldn’t see beyond his devoted attention and eloquent flattery, and really didn’t want to. The development of their relationship over the years is really what this book is about; it’s the only path that could possibly lead to the haunting final scene.

For the reader, following the path is like watching a comic train wreck, if you can imagine such a thing. Iles, or Berkeley, was a humorist, so I don’t suppose it’s any surprise that this book is as funny as it is; but he was also a mystery writer: we laugh, even as the suspense and the shocks urge us to turn away. The humor is built outwards from the characters and situations and the shocks are those felt by Lina as she plumbs to unsuspected depths of Johnny’s and her own psyche. And it’s all rather horribly believable. Just as there are men like Johnny, so there are women like Lina (though neither sex may wish to admit it). Iles puts them together to create a refreshing and immensely satisfying cocktail.

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