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.
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?”
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.