Before 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.