Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles, possibly the most famous novel of uxoricide ever written, begins with a line so classic it distracts you from the opening being, well, a bit dull. This Way Out (1939) by James Ronald, similarly concerned with a dissatisfied husband wishing to dispose of his wife, is happy for you to be immersed in the commonplace before hitting you with brilliant lines of its own, but would surely be more more famous if it began with the following from approximately a third of the way through: “While dawn on slippered feet crept through the silent streets Philip lay in bed examining schemes for killing his wife”.
Philip Marshall and his wife Cora have, in their 25 years of wedlock, made “a disgusting mess” of their married life. He works as an office clerk, lying to her about his wages so she will not demand more and fritter it away on chocolates, while she waits at home, ready to pour bile in his ear at the slightest provocation, holding forth on “his weaknesses…his deficiencies as a money-maker…his failure as a lover” to the charwoman who cleans their house, the women she meets for tea, and just about anyone else who will listen.
It was years since they had looked at each other squarely. Philip had a feeling that if they ever did something would break.
And the fact that Cora “might prefer to go on not being happy as long as she could make Philip miserable” — plus the knowledge of her “vitriolic tongue at his back like the tail of a kite” should he simply walk out on her is sufficient to preclude that as an option. Divorce, too, is out of the picture (“I want to leave you. Is that so surprising?” he implores her in a rare moment of spirit. “Or have you got to used to hell that you wouldn’t feel at home elsewhere?”) and, before too long, thoughts of murder will begin to circle.
The catalyst for this is, of course, a young woman who comes into Philip’s life quite by chance, but it’s refreshing that, unlike with Iles’ Edmund Bickley, Mary Grey isn’t simply a libidinous itch that Philip wishes to scratch. For all Ronald’s frankness when discussing elements of sex — “Of course, you don’t sleep with Mr. Marshall, do you?” Cora is quizzed by one of her associates over tea. “That makes all the difference. You lose your hold on a man if you let him manage without you…” — it’s understood to be merely a “shabby anchor” when used to hold a relationship together and indeed “a damned poor foundation for anything” (this also might be the first GAD novel I’ve read in which a character is propositioned by a prostitute, which is an odd realisation). No, when Mary’s presence begins to bend Philip’s mind in the direction or murder it’s almost a desperate scream in the wilderness, the last gasp out of a drowning sea for a man who simply sees the opportunity to do a noble thing and doesn’t want to be held back by his previous mistakes.
Plot-wise, then, this unfolds in the expected way. Philip plans and commits the murder, an investigation is begun, and the threads of his happiness and his moral responsibility become ever-more entwined. Ground-breaking it may not be, but what compels this for me is the writing, and how brilliantly Ronald sidesteps all histrionics to give an unvarnished story of a disappointed life that finally has a chance to count for something. Whether reflecting on buildings in the City left derelict at the end of a working day…
They had not always been rushed into at 9 a.m., rushed out of at 6 p.m., left lonely through dusk, dark, and dawn. Time was when prosperous city merchants were proud to live in them, when children’s voices echoed through the upper rooms, when good dinners were eaten and good wines drunk beneath their ornamented ceilings, when servants gossiped and grumbled in their basements, when dusk saw the square a-blaze with lights, when the hooves of sleek horses and the wheels of smart carriages beat lively rhythms on the cobbles at the hour when gentlemen were wont to dine.
…or the diluted effect of murder when perpetrated on the page…
Old ladies revel in printed pages dripping blood; but they don’t stop to think about what they’re reading, their eyes race on ravenously, avid for more thrills. They read about a man’s brains being spattered on a wall by the impact of a bullet, but the grisly horror of it doesn’t sink in; they don’t see the picture, they only get the thrill.
…Ronald brings a piquancy to this writing that avoids the usual tepid inculcation of less gifted practitioners, investing Philip and his world with a mien that’s as distinctive as it is unspectacular. There’s not here the frisson of hunter and hunted, just a steady, irrevocable purpose as his life moves through murder and tries to emerge on the other side, knowing that his victim will never truly leave him.
And Ronald’s character sketches are magnificent, too. From the resigned wife of a barfly Philip helps home “upon whom has settled the chilling calm of the dead”, to Philip’s summary of his son’s fiancée having offered her a drink, to the response given by Mrs. Meggs, the aforementioned charwoman, when Cora complains that “I could have written my name in the dust on the dining room furniture” after her previous spate of cleaning (“Eddication’s a wonderful thing.”), to Helen’s landlady reflecting on having never had children, Ronald has a real skill with capturing the essence of someone — it strikes me now that these examples are all women — in the brief moments they get with a clarity that pages and pages of prose could not improve.
Philip’s son, John, is one of two meaningful exceptions here. Driven from the family home by the fault-finding and callous criticism of his mother and telling his landlady that he’s an orphan to avoid any awkward questions, John comes to define the second half of the book. The love between the father and son is observed with the sort of emotional reluctance men of this era would be expected to display, found mostly in small private moments like Philip packing up a box of belongings or John’s realisation that he cannot mourn his mother. The relationship between Philip and John and Mary evolves in surprising ways, thankfully avoiding the sort of development that most modern authors would throw in to show how ‘shocking’ they can be, and in turn gives Mary — the other exception — space for her own doubts, difficulties, and resolutions. And, sure, the late chapter in which Philip reflects on his life to that point might be a bit overdone, but as a window onto a man we’ve spent a lot of time with I actually rather enjoyed the refusal to play it for easy lachrymose manipulation.
The police investigation we know must happen is very much in the background, but revolves around points that are undeniably telling and that we, the experienced readership, know can be spun into the correct, lethal conclusions. I actually had an entirely different way for Philip’s guilt to be brought home to him with more conviction, but it’s very much not that kind of book. We’re dipping a toe into Cornell Woolrich’s nightmarish Noirisms, but retaining enough classic ingredients to satisfy those of you who found much to enjoy in Edmund Bickley’s downfall — indeed, in my mind this should be mentioned in the same breath, because it’s every bit the classic. It’s rare as hen’s teeth at present, but I’m tempted to see if I can improve that — Ronald has written at least three absolute belters, and in no way deserves the forgotten status he has achieved. Watch this space…
Many of you will be aware that this novel was the basis of the Charles Laughton movie The Suspect (1944), and those of you who know me will be aware that I’m terrible at sitting down and watching movies and so — despite its presence on YouTube — I’ve not gotten round to watching it. It’s the perfect material for a movie of that era, though — a real domestic tragedy with plenty to offer for an actor of Laughton’s range. Probably worth a look, despite the inevitable changes that will have been made.