Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Francis Iles’ Before the Fact

Francis Iles’ 1932 novel Before the Fact is best known today as the book on which Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie 1941 Suspicion was based. As most fans of the movie are aware, the endings of the novel and the movie differ very significantly, and which you prefer is largely a matter of taste.

Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971) was born in England and wrote detective stories under several names, including Anthony Berkeley, A. Monmouth Platts and Francis Iles.

Before the Fact, like another of his Francis Iles novels, Malice Aforethought, can be considered to be one of those crime novels that try to be more than just a straight detective novel. As literary critics would rather pompously put the matter, they are an attempt to transcend the limitations of the genre. In both cases there is no doubt whatever of the murderer’s identity (in both cases his identity is revealed on the very first page) - both are psychological studies of murderers (and in the case of Before the Fact of potential murder victims).

Before the Fact is told from the point of view of Lina Aysgarth (née McLaidlaw). Lina has always considered herself to be strong-willed and as a woman who will have to rely on brains rather than beauty if she is to find a husband. And at the age of twenty-eight Lina has decided that she very much wants to find a husband.

The man she chooses is Johnnie Aysgarth. This does not please her father, General McLaidlaw. He is convinced that Johnnie is simply after her money (she already has five hundred a year and will come into £50,000 on her father’s death, a very large sum of money at the time). The general believes that Johnnie, like all the Aysgarths, is no good. But Lina has made her choice.

She soon realises that Johnnie is not a terribly good catch. He spent a great deal of money on her on her honeymoon but then she discovers that it was all borrowed money. Johnnie does not have a penny to his name. Lina tells him that he will have to get a job, a suggestion that shocks him deeply. Work is something he has never contemplated. Lina insists, and Johnnie relents to the extent of taking a position as an estate manager. But there are more unpleasant discoveries to follow. Johnnie is a hopeless (and notably unsuccessful) gambler. He has huge debts. And he is as irresponsible as a child. Oddly enough, this is what makes Lina love him so much. She is convinced that he could not live without her.

Johnnie’s gambling continues to be a problem, and then a fortunate accident happens (fortunate indeed for Johnnie) - the general dies and Lina is now a wealthy woman.

As their marriage progresses Johnnie’s irresponsibility becomes if anything even worse. He takes to forgery. And then Lina makes an unnerving discovery. Her father’s death may not have been due to natural causes, Or rather, the natural causes (a heart condition) may have been given a helping hand by Johnnie. Whether Johnnie is actually, in strictly legal terms, a murderer is open to doubt.

Worse is to follow. There will be other deaths, and other revelations about Johnnie. Lina’s suspicions will continue to grow and drive her almost to breaking point.

The second half of the book differs substantially from the film and the ending differs even more dramatically. Interestingly enough Hitchcock originally intended to go with the ending of the book. I don’t propose even to hint at either ending, but they do represent a considerable change in the tone of the story. I personally prefer the ending of the film but the ending of the book certainly has its virtues.

Both book and film are concerned mostly with the effect of Lina’s suspicions on her own peace of mind, and indeed her sanity. Both are also fascinating case studies of a charming, even loveable, man who really is, as Lina’s father warned her, no good.

The book, even more than the film, is also concerned in an almost gothic manner with the heritability of evil. All the Aysgarths are charming, and none of them is any good. Are Johnnie’s weaknesses of his own making, or are they simply the inevitable results of heredity?

Compared to the movie the book is perhaps a trifle over-long, with a lengthy sub-plot which Hitchcock quite wisely dropped from the movie. Nonetheless the novel is an intriguing early example of the psychological crime novel, and in 1932 (at the height of the so-called golden age of the detective story as intellectual puzzle) was certainly ahead of its time. It can also be seen as a very bizarre love story. The psychological crime novel is not a favourite sub-genre of mine but this is a very good example of the breed and can certainly be recommended.


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  2. I read [i]Before the Fact[/i] at 14, and its effect on me was so strong I couldn't tackle the other, more conventional mystery stories in the volume for several years. It's a masterpiece of psychological suspense, with superb characterizations and deft wit -- and a stunning portrait of the sociopath/psychopath as well.