From the very first paragraph, it’s obvious that the 1932 novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles (a pen name for Anthony Berkeley Cox) is not a typical Golden Age mystery. Golden Age mysteries are typically “whodunits” or “howdunits” in which a detective gathers clues that lead to the identification of a killer. Cox, who actually founded the Detection Club, a circle of British mystery writers, turns the typical pattern of the Golden Age mystery on its ear by beginning Before the Fact not with a crime to be solved, but with the naming of a killer:
Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Aysgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realized that she was married to a murderer.
What follows is a reconstruction of Lina’s marriage to the charming, but irresponsible Johnnie Aysgarth and the events that led her to believe he was a murderer. Instead of wondering who the killer is, the reader wonders whether Lina is right about Johnnie and what she is going to do about it.
Teresa: Suspicion, the film version of this book, is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, so this was a book I’d wanted to read for ages. And I was not disappointed. It is truly creepy, but much of what is creepy about it is that the horror is almost banal. For most of the book, Johnnie is guilty of lies about money, gambling, fidelity, and so on. He’s a rotten husband, but he knows just how to play upon Lina’s desire for love and attention and get exactly what he wants. That kind of manipulation doesn’t seem too uncommon, really.
Jenny: Yes — for much of the book, the creepiness comes from knowing that the manipulation is gradually going to escalate. And it does. It mostly seems to revolve around Johnnie’s need for money and his lack of basic social standards — he doesn’t seem to understand, let alone care, that selling his wife’s belongings for money is something she would object to, or that most men don’t want to live off their wife’s income. Gradually, as his need for money increases, he learns to hide things that other people disapprove of. But that’s not the part I found the most frightening in this excellent and spine-tingling book — not by a long chalk.
Teresa: I agree. Johnnie may be a scoundrel, and his actions are increasingly upsetting, but his motives and desires are clear. He’s out for getting whatever he can with as little effort as possible. Psychologically, he’s just not that interesting. It’s Lina that’s the real story. We see everything Johnnie does through her eyes, and we know what she knows–and what she lets Johnnie get away with. Initially, Lina comes across as a starry-eyed lover. She’s been told all her life that she’s plain and unworthy, and Johnnie treats her like a priceless treasure. You can see why she might be taken in by Johnnie’s extravagant gifts and his promises. But her naïvete doesn’t last, and that’s where the book gets really interesting.
Jenny: As Johnnie’s sociopathic behavior gets more and more extravagant, involving one death and then another, Lina’s passivity and acceptance is less and less tolerable. Your quotation above, about Lina realizing after eight years that she was married to a murderer, is extremely apt. About two-thirds of the way through the book, I realized that the story is really about learning that we’re living with two murderers: Johnnie and Lina. His charming, utterly selfish behavior is the direct cause of the deaths. But it’s her coverups, her excuses, her silence that make those deaths possible. I grew more and more chilled by Lina, not Johnnie. (I found myself wondering several times whether this was an anti-feminist book, and finally decided that it was actually just anti-Lina.)
Teresa: I went through much the same thought process. The possible anti-feminist angle ran through my mind a lot in the first half of the book. We learn early on that Lina had been involved in feminist movements, and I got the feeling that perhaps Iles was trying to show that even the biggest possible feminist would give up all her principles for a handsome man. But as the book goes on, it’s evident that not every woman buys into Johnnie’s game, and even some who did initially come to wake up—one in particular tries to snap Lina out of her enchantment. Lina, not feminism, is the problem here.
In fact, I think the story ends up taking a rather feminist stance in that it shows the danger of sublimating our own desires for those of the men in our lives. Lina is so hungry for Johnnie that she’ll accept any kind of behavior from him. Her submission leads not just to unhappiness, but to annihilation of her very identity.
[The rest of our conversation includes discussion of details of the plot and the ending, so continue reading only if you don't mind spoilers!]
Jenny: Which is, of course, not murder but suicide. To me, that’s the central question of the book. Who is really at fault for the disasters and deaths in this incredibly dysfunctional couple’s wake? Who is the real murderer? I hate to use jargon, but Lina is the absolute quintessential example of a co-dependent spouse. Even when she leaves Johnnie for his infidelity and takes a lover (a far better and kinder person than Johnnie), it’s clear that she’s just waiting for Johnnie to come back and reaffirm her sense of self. So what kind of self could that be?
I have to say that even though Iles leads us by the hand through this process of Lina’s total disappearance into passivity, the ending of the book is still shocking. Didn’t you think so?
Teresa: Yes! It shocked me even though I’d seen the Hitchcock film and knew that the ending was different. I had always thought Hitchcock’s ending was creepy; the change turned the story into a tale about paranoia and how it can build on itself and create barriers in a relationship. (And of course helped the studio maintain Cary Grant’s heartthrob image.)
Knowing the book was different, I kind of imagined that Lina never really got quite beyond the point of suspecting. I assumed that she drank the fatal glass of milk fearing that it might be poisoned but hoping it was not. But as it turns out, she knows what she’s doing, and she goes beyond being a willing victim; she smooths the way for Johnnie, making it as easy for him as possible and even egging him on. So who is the guilty party in Lina’s death?
Jenny: Exactly! And also, in the film, there’s a doubt left about whether it’s just paranoia or whether Johnnie is really a murderer. In the book, not only is there no doubt, but Lina has aided and abetted the killings.
I think the thing I found most shocking at the end is that Lina is pregnant when she accepts the glass of poisoned milk. She hasn’t told Johnnie about the pregnancy, so that particular death is her responsibility alone. She knows it, too: in her “suicide note,” which absolves her husband, she blames the pregnancy for her depression. I find this fascinating, both from a psychological perspective (she must know that a child of hers and Johnnie’s would have very little chance) and from a feminist one, as we said above. This last move seems to be simultaneously the most active and the most passive thing she does in the whole book.
I’m so glad you got us to read this. I didn’t even know this was a book! It was great — creepy in exactly the way I like. I think I’ll read Malice Aforethought next.
This review is part of the Classics Circuit, which is featuring the Golden Age of Detection tour through June 11. The next tour, White Nights on the Neva, will feature Imperial Russian Literature.