Before the Fact

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.

This entry was posted in Bookish films, Classics, Mysteries/Crime. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Before the Fact

  1. Study Window says:

    I hadn’t realised this was a book, either. As i read your opening comments I was racking my brain to think where I’d come across the plot device before and, of course, it’s the Hitchcock. I do hope there is a copy of this available locally as you’ve made me very interested to read it, thank you.

    • Teresa says:

      I hope you’re able to find a copy. I think it’s out of print, unfortunately, but I imagine a lot of libraries would still have it.

  2. farmlanebooks says:

    I reserved a copy from the library after I saw you mention it on Kim’s blog. I hope that I enjoy it as much as you did.

  3. Steph says:

    This one sounds like so much fun! Talk about a great opener! I’ve actually seen Suspicion, so I know how it all turns out, but I can still imagine the book being a gripping read. But question: does Johnnie still call Lina “monkey face” in the book? :D

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, The movie and the book do have some key differences (which we talk about after the spoiler warning), but Johnnie’s calling Lina “monkey face” is *not* one of those differences.

  4. Aarti says:

    This sounds fabulous! Great opening line and great premise. I have never seen the movie, either, but now I want to immerse myself in both!

    • Teresa says:

      Aarti, I love them both, even though it’s not one of Hitch’s most-loved movies and the book is out of print. Both deserve more attention than they get!

  5. Emily says:

    I love it when you two do joint reviews! This sounds totally fascinating & ultra creepy. I’ve seen the Hitchcock film, but not for ages – agree that it would have been very tricky for them to cast Cary Grant as a for-real murderer at the time. It would be interesting to read the novel & then revisit the film.

    • Teresa says:

      Emily, It’s funny how Hollywood changes because these days I don’t think it would be a big deal to cast a Cary Grant type as a murderer. But when you read the book, you can see how he’s perfect for the role, murderer or not.

  6. Kristen M. says:

    This will fit very nicely into my classic movie/book project!

    • Teresa says:

      Kristen, this would be a perfect fit. I love that project, by the way, because I love classic film, and so many of the books have been forgotten, like this one!

  7. Nicole says:

    I haven’t seen the movie or heard of this book before, but it does sound especially creepy. I’m not even sure if I can read it, but thanks for the great joint review!

    • Teresa says:

      Nicole, this is definitely one of those books to read only if you want something dark. Not for everyone, but a great example of its type.

  8. Stefanie says:

    Oh this sounds really good and wonderfully creepy. I’ve not even seen the Hitchcock film but now both books and film are on my list. Really enjoyed reading the review!

  9. Pingback: Before the Fact – Francis Iles – Farm Lane Books Blog

  10. Alex says:

    Finished reading it not a half hour ago – a gripping read and disturbing. They’ve just reprinted under the Arcturus Crime Classics label. I do wonder if the author has a slight agenda re: women – the book is filled with gender generalisations, ‘all women do such-and-such’ type comments, but the most interesting thing is the insight into the mind of a complicit victim – so often heard about but rarely really explored. Must go back and rewatch Suspicion now…

  11. Pingback: Book vs. Movie: Before the Fact by Francis Iles and Suspicion by Alfred Hitchcock | Ms. Wordopolis Reads

  12. Love to Read says:

    I’m coming very late to this thread, but I read the novel as well and considered that Johnny would not receive the insurance if Lina’s suicide note comes to light. She also fears that she is pregnant with a monster, psychopathic Johnny’s tainted seed. Lina does seem to have a latent desire to destroy Johnny, perhaps seeking relief from her constant roiling tension. She seems in thrall of being in the state of suspense, the trauma of wondering if she’s cohabitating with a man who may or may not love her, who may or may not be good. Once she’s clear he’s a “rotter,” she focuses on whether or not he really loves her, glorying in his ambiguous expressions in their final years together. She is characterized as a maternal scold and Johnny as her own boy, her child. She recognizes the impossibility of accomodating another child in this dysfunctional marriage. Lina is the pragmatic to a fault, continuing to patch things up though she admits that love clearly isn’t everything. This novel could be read as a critique of a bored, lazy, disengaged class whose acute emotional needs distract them from the crimes against humanity.

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