Before the Fact
writing as Francis Iles
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Preceded by||Malice Aforethought|
Before the Fact (1932) is a novel by Anthony Berkeley Cox writing under the pen name "Francis Iles".
Iles' novel is experimental in that it is not a whodunit: It does not take long to determine the identity of the villain and his motives. According to Colin Dexter, Before the Fact is a "crime novel" rather than a "detective novel", with Iles being "the father of the psychological suspense novel as we know it today" for his authorship of Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932). It is true that the police do not play any role in the book; none of the characters are ever charged with a crime, let alone indicted for or convicted of one. Dark and suspenseful, Berkeley's thriller was adapted into the classic film Suspicion, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Before the Fact is the story of Lina, a "born victim". She is raised in the country in the early decades of the 20th century and, at 28, she is still a virgin and in danger of becoming an old spinster. She finds country life with her parents rather boring, and only lives for strangers who might be passing through or who have been invited by someone living in or near their village. When the novel opens, such a stranger has just arrived: 27-year-old Johnnie Aysgarth, from an impoverished family who are, as she is told, "of rotten stock". General McLaidlaw, Lina's father, is opposed to the marriage, and everyone seems to know that all that Johnnie is after is Lina's money. Lina herself has been told from an early age that Joyce, her younger sister, got the looks and she (Lina) got the brains.
In spite of these difficulties, Lina and Johnnie get married after only a short engagement. They go to Paris on their honeymoon, where they stay at the best hotels and dine at the best restaurants, and, on their return, move into an eight-bedroom house in Dorset. Soon Johnnie, who is jobless, admits to his wife that they have been living on borrowed money and that it has run out. Gradually, unwillingly, Lina takes charge of the couple's finances and suggests that Johnnie get a regular job. For the time being, they rely entirely on Lina's allowance. Reluctantly, Johnnie takes a job as the steward of a large estate of a Captain Melbeck. Lina always wanted to have children, but, as it turns out, she never gets pregnant.
As time goes by, Lina gradually learns that Johnnie is a crook. Apart from being a compulsive liar, he turns out to be
- a thief: During a tennis party, he steals an expensive diamond belonging to one of the guests and, soon afterwards, a piece of Lina's own jewellery. Also, he sells Lina's four Hepplewhite chairs to an antique shop in Bournemouth.
- a forger: He forges Lina's signature and cashes one of her cheques.
- an embezzler: He embezzles Captain Melbeck's money to pay his gambling debts. Luckily, Melbeck doesn't prosecute.
- an adulterer: During their marriage, he has affairs with many women and village girls, including Lina's best friend, Janet Caldwell – he has a flat in Bournemouth especially for that purpose – and Ella, their parlour maid, by whom he has a son.
- eventually, a murderer: He incites General McLaidlaw to do a trick involving chairs while he and Lina are staying with the General for Christmas. This is too much physical exercise for the General, and he dies suddenly. Some years later, Johnnie cheats a rich school friend of his, Beaky Thwaite, out of his money by travelling incognito to Paris with him, going to a brothel and having him drink a whole beaker of brandy in one gulp so that he drops dead.
However, Lina's own death will be Johnnie's first "real" murder. He goes to great lengths to conceive an undetectable murder. When Isobel Sedbusk, the author of detective stories, happens to spend the summer in their village, he associates with her and, on the pretext of discussing material for her new book, elicits a new method of murder from her: swallowing an alkali commonly used, but never suspected of being poisonous, and which leaves no trace in the human body for a post-mortem to find. At the very end of the novel, Lina, who really seems to have gone mad, catches the flu. She has been waiting for her husband to try to murder her for months now. When he brings her a drink, she swallows it deliberately, knowing that it is a poisonous cocktail. Johnny is going to get away with it ("People did die of influenza."), which is what Lina, so much in love with her husband, hopes will happen.
The novel covers a period of approximately ten years: Johnnie Aysgarth's courtship of, and marriage to, Lina McLaidlaw, the disintegration of their marriage and her imminent death – although it is uncertain that she is really going to die. The whole story is told from Lina Aysgarth's point of view. We know everything she does and everything she thinks. On the other hand, we know practically nothing about the villain except for what Lina sees and gathers, creating more suspense.
The novel was adapted to film as Suspicion (1941), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. However, the inverted detective story format was eliminated, making Johnnie's murderous indiscretions merely a product of Lina's imagination. According to William L. De Andrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994), this was because the studio, RKO Radio Pictures, was uncomfortable with the idea of having one of Hollywood's leading actors Cary Grant, who played Johnnie, being shown on screen as a devious psychopath.
Hitchcock was quoted as saying that he was forced to alter the ending of the movie. He wanted an ending similar to the climax of the novel, but the studio, more concerned with Cary Grant's "heroic" image, insisted that it be changed. Writer Donald Spoto, in his biography of Hitchcock The Dark Side of Genius, disputes Hitchcock's claim to have been over-ruled on the film's ending. Spoto claims that the first RKO treatment and memos between Hitchcock and the studio show that Hitchcock emphatically desired to make a film about a woman's fantasy life.