It seems almost indecent that someone should have the inspiration to write a book like Payment Deferred (1926) before Anthony Berkeley had conceived of his Francis Iles nom de plume and written Malice Aforethought (1931). And yet there’s something unformed about C.S. Forester’s tale of ill-gotten money, murder, and general moral decay that speaks to the callowness of the undertaking. Land sakes, don’t read this if you’re having a bad week — its unrelenting grimness and domestic horror would dent even the sunniest of dispositions — and avoid it, too, if you want a tight criminous plot with even a sniff of Iles-brand irony. This is dark stuff, unleavened at any stage.
To some extent, a reader’s response to a book has to take into account how successfully the author achieved the aim of writing the type of book they intended, and then consider the matter of that individual reader’s enjoyment separately. In this regard, Forester setting out to write a miserable book about a miserable man who makes everyone in his life miserable, lives miserably, and then meets a miserable end amidst much misery is a rollicking success. By the same notion, a book written with the intent of simply allowing a hedgehog to walk over the keyboard and then publishing the results can be a success, but it wouldn’t make it a good book (though the Guardian would probably love it — snort, chortle), so for all Forester’s success this isn’t a book I can recommend on any basis whatsoever. In all my life, I don’t think I’ve read anything even close to this repellent, nor have I rue’d the experience of reading a book to this extent. Hell, at least the other books I’ve given a single star to on this blog were amusingly bad. This is just unremitting awfulness from first to last (probably, I quit with 50 pages to go).
Mr. William Marble, bank clerk, lives with his wrung out, meekly obedient and dim wife and two teenaged children who can’t stand him in unfashionable Dulwich (ha!). Facing financial ruin, he murders a providential wealthy relative, buries the body in the back garden, and then uses the ill-gotten money to speculate on a currency transfer scheme that is as impenetrable and uninteresting as it is minutely catalogued to accrue sudden, incredible wealth. But, oh no, he can’t enjoy it because he’s worried the body in the garden might be discovered, so he drinks too much, bullies and beats his wife, and generally behaves in garish ways that Forester seems to want to make it clear will definitely happen when you give commoners money. No doubt he dies at the end, probably tried for a murder he didn’t commit but only serves to make everyone even more miserable.
At times, Forester almost succeeds in giving you a background character to sympathise with — a one-paragraph snooty librarian is a delight when you can unpick what the tangled prose is trying to tell you — and the idea of their shabby house at 53 Malcolm Road becoming an anchor that Marble simply cannot let go almost becomes a theme of sorts, but the book is mostly made up of scenes of Marble being disdained by his co-workers, his neighbours, and his family, and then doing something to make his situation worse and make someone hate him even more. There’s none of the psychological acuity that made Malice Aforethought’s Dr. Bickleigh such pleasant company — Marble is daring when needed, dashing when needed, sulky and childish when needed, as if Forester can’t decide how to put a consistent presence at the centre of his narrative — with the downward spiral less a morality tale than a test of endurance of how much you want to wallow in unhappy lives lived badly.
God, even writing this review is making me miserable.
I want to admire some of the writing that surrounds Marble — his neighbour, the dressmaker Marguerite Collins hardening herself to put the squeeze on William for some money, or the piece of wordplay that represents the sole moment of levity in the whole thing (“There was a little bit of the boor and a little bit of the bear about John.”) — but every event in this book, on account of that callowness in the form it is adopting, is a signpost labelled MORE UNHAPPINESS THIS WAY followed unerringly to the worst possible outcome at every single turn, so that I found myself unable even to enjoy what few plot conceits there are. You really do appreciate the skill of authors who looked at this obvious form of the crime story and innovated it into something rich, compelling, morally complex, and most of all enjoyable to read. Forester should be commended as an innovator and doubtless has been elsewhere, leaving me free to acknowledge that doing something first doesn’t mean you’re doing it well.
There may be an argument that this is an examination of the way the crime plays upon the criminal, but I’d counter that with two objections. Firstly, William Marble never seems to regret the murder itself, only fearing discovery as the consequence of his actions, and secondly we’re not exactly given to believe that the man had any positive qualities before we meet him: he’s clearly been disinterested in his wife for some time — and I feel I could write a month’s worth of posts about how poorly Annie Marble is treated by spouse and creator alike, a woman of almost godlike stupidity and credulity whose only purpose is to suffer — is capricious in the degree of disdain he shows to his children, is already disliked at work, and has no friends or interests of his own. There’s nothing to sympathise with, no metamorphosis to watch in horror, just a grim, inevitable trudge towards his own destruction, an end which you’ve been wishing for anyway…without even the enjoyment of seeing a monster hoist by his own petard.
You might disagree of course — this is the joy of individual responses to books — but I hated this; hated it, hated it, hated it, and won’t be talked into believing that it is meritorious in any way. Honestly, I wish I could forget I ever picked it up in the first place, except then I’d make the mistake of reading it a second time.
Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: One way we can look at this novel is as a character study of a murderer, exploring how the criminal act appears to have changed him as a man. Certainly there is a sense that this action sets him on a dark path to destruction, an idea that is not uncommon in inverted crime stories (for a later take on the same idea you might see Crofts’ Antidote to Venom or Simon Brett’s A Shock to the System). I think though that what makes Forester’s novel interesting beyond its relatively early publication date is the chilling idea that murder has not changed Mr. Marble as significantly as we might expect.
Fiction Fan: I often struggle with books where the criminal is the main character unless there’s plenty of black humour to lift the tone. In this one there is no humour, leaving it a bleak story with a couple of episodes that I found distinctly unpleasant. Had it been set amidst the anxious speed of big city life I would call it noir, but the respectable dullness of the middle-class suburban setting left the tone feeling grey. I also felt it went on too long (though in actual pages it’s quite short) – the endless descriptions of William drinking whisky to drown his guilt, his heart constantly thudding, pounding, racing, poor Annie’s repeated descent into sobbing for one reason or another, all became so repetitive that they lost any impact after a while.