‘Malice Aforethought’ by Francis Iles

My Review (5 stars out of 5)

In the garden of Doctor and Mrs Bickleigh during the inter-war years, a tennis party brings together friends and neighbours. But socialising is not on the henpecked doctor’s mind. Instead, he has his sights on the young Gwynyfryd Rattery whose charms he hopes to surmount under the guise of offering her some hydrangea cuttings in the garden shed. When his romantic plans come to naught, Bickleigh’s attention turns to the newcomer in Wyvern’s Cross – Miss Cranmere. Over the following weeks, his visits to the new tenant of the Hall continue, and Doctor Bickleigh begins to see that Miss Cranmere might satisfy more than simply his desire for intimacy. Unfortunately, for his plan to work, he will first of all have to murder his wife…

Francis Iles was one of the pennames of crime writer Anthony Berkeley Cox. As Iles, he wrote several books including Malice Aforethought. Way back in 1979, the BBC produced a dramatized version of the tale starring the wonderful Hywel Bennett as the hard-done-by Dr Bickleigh, so it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading the book (admittedly, quite a long time). As a crime novel, Malice Aforethought introduced an idea that has influenced crime writers ever since – that of telling the reader right at the start that Bickleigh intends to kill his wife. Given this premise, you might think the denouement is a foregone conclusion, but it ain’t necessarily so. As well as plotting the demise of Mrs Bickleigh, the story is a delightful insight into the middleclass world of the 1930s and how society treated those who stepped out of line. Given Bickleigh’s habit of seducing every available woman he comes across, the gossipmongers come out in force as news of his growing association with Miss Cranmere spreads around Wyvern’s Cross.

With a generous helping of black humour, this is a highly entertaining and clever book that held my attention right to the end.

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