2blowhards.com on Neglected Author Francis Iles

Source: Francis Iles, “Before the Fact”, from the 2blowhards.com blog.

Michael, one of the anonymous Blowhards, writes a long and thoughtful piece on the works of Francis Iles, who wrote several examples of the genre known as the “inverted mystery,” a forerunner of the psychological thriller in the 1930s, before disappearing from the publishing scene completely.

Iles is not utterly neglected, as his novel Malice Aforethought is in print again as a reissue, thanks to a 2005 BBC miniseries.

However, Michael lights upon another Iles work, Before the Fact, by way of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 film, “Suspicion”, for which it was the source. The basic story, as Michael describes it, has become familiar to us: “a marriage between a charming cad who is also a sociopath, and a mousey, somewhat priggish, and well-off woman.” Joan Crawford chewed up the scenery in the mid-1950s with a similar premise in “Autumn Leaves” (OK, so the Cliff Robertson character was a psychopath instead of a sociopath … the point is, it’s a much-beaten path).

As usual with a familiar story, it’s the telling that makes the difference. Michael delights in Iles’ ironic twists of phrase:

Armed as you are with foreknowledge of what’s going to come, some very simple sentences can make you guffaw: “On the whole, Lina enjoyed her honeymoon,” for example, was one. That “On the whole” hit me like the punchline to a dirty joke. Poor old Lina … She just couldn’t see it coming, could she?

“On the whole” … it reminds me of “Little did he know …” from “Stranger than Fiction. The third-person omniscient voice does allow an author to play God in such devilish ways. In the end, Michael is so impressed by Iles’ success in his telling that he wonders aloud, “Why isn’t Before the Fact widely recognized as one of the most amazing book-fictions of the 20th century?”

Neglected mysteries publisher Crippen & Landru have reissued The Avenging Chance, a collection of short stories Iles published under his real name, Anthony Berkeley Cox.

Movies can sometimes lead us back to long-forgotten gems. Julian Fellowes’ excellent 2005 movie, “Separate Lies”, for example, leads us to Nigel Balchin’s intricate psychological thriller, A Way Through the Wood (reissued and retitled “Separate Lies” to make the journey easier) … although Clive James did not think it one of Balchin’s best novels when he wrote “The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin” a few years ago.

3 thoughts on “2blowhards.com on Neglected Author Francis Iles

  1. It took over a decade for Before The Fact to go from novel to “Suspicion.” Many writers were involved with the project. Around 1938, Nathanael West and another writer (I think it was Boris Ingster, who much later created The Man From UNCLE) were hired to adapt it. The resulting script is in the Library of America edition of West’s works. I read it a decade ago and don’t remember much about it except it doesn’t follow the book, so, like “Suspicion,” the heroine doesn’t die. Probably a faithful adaptation of the novel would be as unacceptable to today’s Hollywood as it was then. Recently the author of an upcoming biography of Patricia Highsmith, reacting to talk of a planned remake of “Strangers On A Train,” noted that it kept the film’s basic story and asked me:”When will they ever film the novel itself?” I didn’t answer, since it seems obvious that both Guy and Bruno dying, as happens in the book, just wouldn’t get by the suits.
    Cox’s non-Iles books, for the most part, were published as by Anthony Berkeley. He quit publishing around 1940, apparently stopped writing completely, but didn’t die until 1971; I don’t know the reason for this silence.

  2. To me, it’s a bit pointless to talk about how much a movie differs from a book it’s derived from. What makes a film based on a book succeed or fail is rarely how faithful it is.These are two fundamentally different media and there are so many choices that have to be made relative to the medium and quite independent of the source material. Does anyone listen to “Pictures from an Exhibition” and think, “Well, that doesn’t much sound like the paintings”?

  3. But the choices made in a film adaptation at least ought to add up to something that isn’t ludicrous in the context of the film itself. “Suspicion” is a real case in point. In Iles’ book, the heroine drinks the poisoned milk and dies, also killing her unborn child. Her villanous husband goes unpunished. That was quite a heavy-duty ending for its day and one reason the book had such an impact. It would also, of course, have completely violated the Hays Code if filmed. So every attempt to adapt it up to the time Hitchcock started work on the project involved the heroine staying alive and the husband being punished. (Now that I think about I believe that was how the West/Ingster script played out.) And, when Hitch started his movie, the plan was to have Cary Grant actually plan murder and to be punished for it. The movie was shot on the assumption that such would be the ending. But RKO’s executives ruled this out and at the last minute Hitch filmed the ending we have, in which it turns out that Cary Grant was really just being a little irresponsible, but is going to shape up, and that the stuff about murder was all in Joan Fontaine’s mind. When I first saw the movie I couldn’t believe the ending. When my wife first saw it she couldn’t believe it.

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