Malice Aforethought, published in 1931, is generally regarded as Francis Iles’ masterpiece, and with good reason.
Iles was in fact a pen name used by Anthony Berkeley Cox(1893-1971) who also wrote detective fiction under the name Anthony Berkeley.
Malice Aforethought is not a conventional mystery novel, since the identity of the murderer is disclosed on the very first page. This was a technique that had been used earlier by R. Austin Freeman, who described it as the inverted detective story. In Freeman’s hands the technique was used to place the emphasis on the way the detective solves the crime. Iles uses it for slightly different purposes - his concern is with the psychology of the murderer.
Dr Bickleigh is a popular and well-respected country general practitioner in the tiny English village of Wyvern’s Cross, but he is not happy. He is dominated by his wife, and the fact that she is his social superior makes this even more intolerable (the novel dates from 1931 when the class divide in Britain was still an immense and unbridgeable gulf). He compensates for his sense of inferiority by seducing as many of the women of Wyvern’s Cross as he can.
An unfortunate liaison with yet another woman from a higher social class brings Dr Bickleigh’s discontent to head and he decides that life with his wife Julia has become unendurable. Murdering her seems to be the best possible option.
Iles gives us a disturbing glimpse into the mind of a man who is so outrageously self-centred that he no longer has any sense of morality at all. He lacks any kind of adult understanding of the world.
It’s a novel that fully lives up to its reputation as one of the classics of crime fiction. Highly recommended.