Book vs. Movie: Before the Fact by Francis Iles and Suspicion by Alfred Hitchcock

Before the FactBefore the Fact by Francis Iles

The Gregg Press, 1979

Originally published 1932

I borrowed this book from the library.


Before the Fact is a psychological thriller that has a quite captivating first paragraph and delves into a story about money, a very odd marriage, and murder. It sounds quite contemporary, but there are several things that place the book firmly in the year 1932: the economy is in shambles. Work is hard to come by, and there are limits on taking English currency out of the country, which is a crucial part of the plot.

Lina McLaidlaw is an older  unmarried woman– nearly 30 years old– who lives with her wealthy parents in the country, and she falls in love with Johnnie Ayrsgard, a disreputable man from a formerly-wealthy family. The novel chronicles the ups and downs of her marriage to Johnnie and follows the turns of her relationship with him. Over the course of 10 years, she finds out what crimes he is willing to commit in order to sustain his standard of living. Their relationship is quite twisted and codependent, but codependent is not a word much bandied about in 1932, when this book takes place.

The introduction in my edition is from H.R.F. Keating, and he calls it a primo psychological novel in terms or focusing on characters and their subconscious unlike lots of earlier works. It’s a sort of incomprehensible subconscious to me: she has money and means to escape Johnnie, but she refuses to do so. Part of it has to do with how much Johnnie has manipulated her during the course of the 10 years this book covers, but part of it too is her own personality: she feels extremely grateful that Johnnie rescued her from spinsterhood. Iles does not go into Johnnie’s mind, which is fine by me, but it makes for a bit of an odd story because the other characters are not nearly as well-developed as Lina is.

I also watched the Alfred Hitchcock version of the book, Suspicion (1941), starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. The obvious differences between the book and the film involve the beginning and the end. The first paragraph of the book is quite creepy, a tone that is utterly missing in the film:

Some women give birth to murderers, some got to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Ayrsgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realized that she was married to a murderer.

The film is much more oblique, as the title Suspicion points too: the film constantly plays with the question of whether Lina is misinterpreting events. and Iles himself is quite clear that she cannot underestimate Johnnie’s criminality. Also, according to an interview in a DVD extra, the ending of the film was not Hitchcock’s choice, nor was it in any way like the ending of the book: Cary Grant comes off a lot better in the movie than Johnnie does in the book, and it’s a much cleaner ending for Lina as well in the film. The ending of the book is one worth much discussion, and though the book is ancient, I don’t want to go into it in much detail here.

My preference is for the book over the film: even though I didn’t understand all the levels of Lina and Johnnie’s marriage in the book, the story was much more nuanced in the book than in the film. And the tone was much creepier in the book as well.

Martin Edwards wrote an interesting piece in Mystery Scene Magazine about Anthony Berkeley (Francis Iles was a pen name), and Shelf Love featured another comparison of the book and film.


17 thoughts on “Book vs. Movie: Before the Fact by Francis Iles and Suspicion by Alfred Hitchcock

  1. That is definitely a creepy first paragraph. From the description of the book I don’t know if I would like it but your review does make me curious enough to try it. I have seen the movie, although it has been a few years. I do like Cary Grant a lot, but don’t think this movie was very memorable. This is a great comparison of book and movie. I always find those difficult to do but I enjoy them so much I plan to continue.

    And thanks for the link to the Martin Edwards article. Very comprehensive.

    • It’s a very good beginning, and it’s a very odd story that follows. It reminds me of some other books I’ve read, but the tone feels very different (Lina didn’t feel very forthcoming to me, and some characters just popped up out of the blue).

      You’re welcome for the Edwards link: I don’t know much about older writers so I thought I’d share what I came across. Now it’s time for me to catch up on your 1932book post!

  2. Rebecca – Thanks as always for the thoughtful review. I think the marriage dynamic is so very interesting! And sometimes it can lead to some really suspenseful situations.

    • Hope you enjoy it, Sarah. I’ve done a few of Rich’s monthly challenges, and I invariably pick a book that’s been adapted into a movie. It might be that those books tend to be in print still.

  3. I had no idea that film was based on a book…I remember in the film Cary Grant wasn’t an unsympathetic character (well he was Cary Grant…!) Irritatingly, I can’t remember the ending right now. I watched a lot of Hitchcock films in my youth, as a friend’s dad was an ex-reviewer for a newspaper and he FED us films, especially older ones! I do enjoy your blog btw!

  4. Thanks! I’ve just recently discovered your blog as well. I’ve never watched tons of old movies, but I did watch quite a few as a kid, especially Hitchcocks playing on TV on Sunday afternoons. CG came across as more of a cad in the film instead of the sinister character he was in the book. I’d love to know what old movies to dive into.

  5. I just finished re-reading this book and, this time, looked at the ending in a whole new light. Does anyone else question the usually accepted interpretation?

  6. Spoiler! If you’ll recall, Lina has decided that Johnny is going to poison her and in the end he has brought her a glass of milk. Was it poisoned or not?

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