Genre is essentially the formalisation of deja vu. Those of us who return to — or avoid — particular genres do so because of the essential ingredients that recur there, whether through implicit rules or otherwise.
It is, then, to be expected that a creeping sense of repetition inhabits the background of any such reading. There are only so many murderous house parties, or shocking last-minute developments in court cases, or faintly aloof gentlemen sleuths running rings around the Stolid Scotland Yard Man we can encounter before we start to think “Hmmm, this reminds me of…”. And that’s not inherently a bad thing, because it helps to secure the type of book we’re getting: whether you want to read another book that might mislead you as adroitly as Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand or avoid anything that disappoints as staggeringly as The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn (1970) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the understanding that a story falls within a particular idiom — be it fair play detection, magic realism, political roman-à-clef — is arguably what led to the observation of genre in the first place.
There will be, however, those times when the comparison is not an entirely positive one. A creeping sense of “I’ve seen this trick before in X…”, or “This reminds me of Y, but less good…”. Sometimes that’s deliberate — the author appears to be going down the same route as X only to pull the rug, flooring, and entire house out from beneath you on account of them knowing that you probably know what happens in X — but sometimes it is simply that someone wrote a less good version of a book that already exists, whether consciously or not. I had this creeping, sinking feeling of disconsolate deja vu when reading The Colour of Murder (1957) by Julian Symons recently. It reminded me of something from my dim and distant past which at first I was convinced was one of the Mickey Haller ‘Lincoln Lawyer’ novels by Michael Connelly — I’d unwittingly dragged a red herring across my own memory by rereading Connelly last month — before the gleaming spine of the 2018 Dover reissue of Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles winking expectantly up at me from my shelves suddenly brought realisation crashing in. Yes, there are key differences in the plots, but in my mind The Colour of Murder was simply Malice Aforethought with the guts torn out.
At a surface level, both contain the same ingredients: a frustrated man in an unhappy marriage who, through an unexpected encounter with an uncommonly malapert young woman, finds himself drawn into thoughts of murder. The first half of each book is given over to a lengthy examination of the psychology of the would-be murderer, at the halfway stage a killing is carried out, and things draw to a close with a court case in which the man’s various failings and poor decision-making are examined in the light of day to illustrate the folly of such endeavours as a gateway to happiness. Both achieve this aim with an admirable lack of bombast or proselytising, and both are, in their own way, superbly written. The key difference, I would argue, is that Iles — Anthony Berkeley, as we all know, though I’ll call him Iles for the purposes of this post — really understands the seed of murder, where Symons does not.
[I had originally intended to discuss only Malice Aforethought in the foregoing, but it’s ended up a bit of a mash of both books. Obviously you’ll get the most out of this if you’ve read them both, and anything explicitly too spoilery I’ve tried to flag up…but inevitably the broad hints at certain elements of each book may themselves be too much for the careful soul; the reader is warned…]
Iles’ Dr. Edmund Bickleigh faces up to the concept of murder from the very first line: “It was not until several weeks until after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr, Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr. Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster”. While John Wilkins from Symons’ book asserts in the opening paragraph that “[w]hatever a man does, he’s got to take responsibility for this own actions”, it’s Symons who seeks to avoid the actual unpleasantness of murder with convenient blackouts that occlude certain key moments in that later novel. Iles/Berkeley was not above resulting to similar tricks — I’ll always remember the staggering power of the line “After that, he preferred to remember nothing” from Trial and Error (1937) — but while Wilkins’ constant refrain of wanting to be jailed if it turns out he is guilty of that book’s midway murder appears to be the more responsible course, the simple fact of his, and our, uncertainty, of the shying away from any particulars, robs that philosophy of any power. Iles stares murder in the face, charting Bickleigh’s gradual descent into justification, denial, and normalisation of this act, whereas Wilkins is an unchanging record, spinning in the dark and waiting to be told what he is and what that means.
I’d suggest that this can be best exemplified by the way in which both men express dissatisfaction with their wives by resorting to physical violence against them. From that point on, Bickleigh begins a steady awakening of the sort of justification of murderous urges that mark out the majority of the book:
Any idea, however preposterous at first sight, if toyed with for long enough will begin to take on a practical aspect; any ugliness will be lifted by familiarity, if not into beauty, at any rate on to a plane where those relative terms have no meaning. … Murder ceases to be murder at all, and becomes a merciful release.
Whether or not the unhappiness Bickleigh and Wilkins feel is directly the fault of their wives’ actions, in kicking against the accepted social trappings — of appearances, and tennis parties, and owning a car — they reject the ‘normal’ lives that their wives, and the society they seek, seem to represent. And in breaking the shackles of society, in breaking the shackles of their marriage through violence and pursuing affairs with other women, they should also break the shackles on the mindset that has held them thus to that point. But for Wilkins the action of hitting his wife, and later on smashing in a rage the ornament given to him as an anniversary present, is simply a futile act of a futile man. He goes on from there to fall into the same insecurities as before: showing himself up at his tennis club, awkwardly intruding on the patience of a woman we know — thanks to an early excerpt of a letter she writes — does not view him with much favour. When her rejection of him comes, it is simply another example of this futility. There is no cumulative result — the unhappy marriage, violence against his wife, dubious promotion at work, and rejection by the woman he has become obsessed with are simply events, never really seen in consort, that have little to no bearing on Wilkins once he finds himself accused of a crime he may not have committed. In all honesty, there’s no purpose to any of it. The eventual act of murder is robbed of any power by existing independent of all that precedes it: after all, Wilkins may not be guilty. And if he is, well, he’d never know it anyway.
Bickleigh, however, begins to change as soon as the motivating event occurs, and it’s fascinating to watch. The one fault of Malice Aforethought is that the book suffers whenever Bickleigh is off the page, such as during those sequences in which the social mores of Wyvern’s Cross are investigated in forensic detail — like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, he is a grotesque of quite compelling vintage — as he comes apart expertly under Iles’ hands. After he strikes Julia “his brain, incapable of thought was throbbing with mixed emotion: half of it was disgust, and half a queer, shouting exaltation”. We know he is afflicted by the insecurities that assail Wilkins because we’re told early on:
Dr. Bickleigh continued to feel uncouth in the presence of women, insignificant in the presence of men, and inferior in every way to each fresh stranger he met.
And yet Iles also has the sense to then sow this vital seed:
Only when alone could he realise that he was quite as good as anyone else in this world, and possibly a little better.
Bickleigh, you feel early on, is going to change.
Wilkins seems not too concerned about such matters: aside from failing to attach the importance to social standing that his wife does, there’s really nothing in the time we spend with him that suggests any desire to break out of what he has, any lingering dissatisfaction that may imbue his actions with a purpose. There doesn’t even really seem to be a sexual motive to his actions, given how laissez faire he seems after unsuccessfully trying to kiss Sheila after taking her to the theatre…apart from her smiling at him a few times, Wilkins’ pursuit of Sheila is without any defining purpose or intent. He simply…pursues her. Sex almost seems an afterthought with Wilkins, given that he’s more than happy to ‘make love’ to his wife May while she “lay there like a marble block, quite still” and, later on, simply carries here to bed against her protestations and has sex with her while she lays unresisting and sobbing through the whole ordeal. And, again, there’s never any sense that this contributes to an overall arc for anyone: May still endures Wilkins’ presence, still goes to Brighton on the doomed ‘second honeymoon’…it’s like each scene is forgotten after it occurs.
In its own way, sex is a motivating factor for Bickleigh, but (ASSUME SPOILERS) not on account of dissatisfaction per se, since we know that he has already had sexual encounters with almost every woman of appropriate age in Wyvern’s Cross. Madeleine Cranmere at least represents for Bickleigh something new in that she doesn’t initially strike him as a sexual being…indeed, it’s through a shared interest in art that she first captures his attention, giving the obsession that results some basis in reason at least (END SPOILERS). With Madeleine he “somehow manage[s] to become seventeen again” and goes quite consciously from “a star of scandal [to] a complete constellation” while entirely unmindful of the tut-tutting and alacrity that he provokes: indeed, it’s only when Madeleine expresses horror at the idea of marrying a divorced man — of showing the fixation with social mores that Bickleigh is kicking so hard against — that the cracks being to appear in the version of his life that he is trying to create with her.
The question of divorce raises its head in both books, and (ASSUME SPOILERS) not nearly enough credit is given to Julia Bickleigh for the progressive attitude she adopts — surprising not just for the time in which such open-mindedness would have been thoroughly unexpected, but also for the fact that Anthony Berkeley faced many an accusation of misogyny in his time and here makes perhaps the most intelligent person in the whole book the Shrewish Wife archetype who turns out to be far richer than initial appearances would suggest. Arguably, Julia dies through no fault of her own at all, since it’s not Julia who poses the obstacle that motivates that murder ruminated upon from the opening line. Had she taken the far harder line of May Wilkins — “I should never give you up… No matter what happened, I should never give you up” — it would perhaps be anticipated that Julia would not be long for this world, and Iles does brilliantly in charting the changing face of our killer by removing what seems to be the chief motive for the murder (END SPOILERS). When the motive comes for Bickleigh, it is the result of sheer, wild desperation.
Here again, Symons fails to understand motivation and cumulation of purpose: while Wilkins “couldn’t be certain whether she was referring to me or to the furnishings” when May tells him “I love you”, the actions performed within that marriage — her displeasure with his family, the previously-mentioned abuse — should surely give rise to a feeling of suffocated frustration on Wilkins’ part that, no matter what he does, he shall never be free of his wife. It should be here that a creeping sense of hopelessness begins to invade, but instead Wilkins drops the subject, almost gratefully, and goes ahead planning a second honeymoon which — we’re told — wasn’t even really motivated by the desire to see Sheila, at least not on a conscious level…so, does he in fact legitimately want to rescue his marriage? No, not a bit of it. Is this followed up in any way? Well, he poses a sort of intellectual puzzle to Uncle Dan about murdering someone and getting away with it, and then that gets dropped as well.
This matters in the context of the novel because if it turns out that Wilkins is a murderer, the foregoing provides no window on why that’s the case. There’s no indication of what may have prompted the murder, no sense of how the experience of murdering someone would have changed him. And, sure, we’re inured to the principle of fictional murder through, appositely, toying with it for long enough, but the act of murder is surely an awful, hideous thing that runs contrary to all fundamental human instincts. And Symons shies away from the act, the result, the evidence, the fallout, the damage done…at no point does he really have the courage to look at what he’s creating. As Bickleigh becomes ever more bent out of shape from the timid, put upon doormat he starts the book as, and “having cast off door-mattery” ends up wanting “a door mat of his own”, we get to see the ravages that murder has wrought upon his mind — the casual dismissal, choosing to disregard murder as murder at all when it’s essentially a benevolent act of reducing the suffering of someone whose life is being ruined, and of then (ASSUME SPOILERS) turning vengeful when Madeleine turns out not to be the person he suspected, becoming “a small, grim figure, meting out life or death” in judgement and finally, fatally, psychotically askew with the power he wields.
Because the fact that Madeleine does not really care for Bickleigh is the bitterest irony of it all. Becoming obsessed with her after the flightiness of the previous ‘other women’ in his life — witness his aghast disgust as “hear[ing] Madeleine’s name put on a par with Irene’s, Ivy’s, Mabel’s…” — only for Madeleine, having inspired such darker purpose within him, to turn out to be perhaps even more vapidly equivocal in her feelings. Where Ivy, whom Bickleigh rejects time and again, appears to only grow in her ardour for our homicidal doctor, Madeleine doesn’t even have the courage to face him when she knows he will react badly to new of her engagement. She has this non-committal uncertainty in common with Sheila Morton, as Bill Lonegran explains to Wilkins at the end of the first half of that novel:
“You say to her come out to the river, Sheila, she won’t like to say no if she doesn’t want to. She’ll say I can’t come this week-end, I’ve got to look after father. All right, you say, what about next weekend? That’s no good, I’ve got a date to play tennis. The weekend after that, then? And she smiles and says that would be lovely. You think that means she really wants to go on the river, you’d be wrong. She just hates to say no, disappoint people.”