Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest is more than just a gripping detective story. It’s also a political statement, inspired
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Malice Aforethought is considered one of the first examples of the “inverted detective story.” Here, both the murder AND murderer are revealed at the beginning. The intrigue builds as the reader sees how the detective unravels the clues to solve the mystery.
Published in 1931, the book ranks #16 in the Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time.
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Here are some questions about Malice Aforethought to get you started. Read, reflect, weigh in above, and listen to the podcast!
Anthony Berkeley Cox, author of Malice Aforethought, was one of the founding members of the Detection Club, formed in 1930. Members included Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Hugh Walpole, E. C. Bentley, and Baroness Emma Orczy. Berkeley Cox came up with the idea of fellow crime writers gathering for dinner. The first president was G. K. Chesterton. The club aimed to provide a social gathering for crime writers and use its influence to promote high standards.
Dorothy Sayers wrote the initiation oath: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
At first, the Detection Club restricted membership to respectable detective novelists. The club eventually relaxed the qualification criteria and now allows writers of spy thrillers, etc. Today, the Detection Club still holds regular meetings in London.
Malice Aforethought is an inverted mystery, which is a mystery that reveals the murderer early in the story. The real mystery of the story is why the murder was committed or how the murderer is caught. Here are the opening lines: “It was not until several weeks 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.”
How did you feel about getting all this information right up front?
In Malice Aforethought, Teddy maintains the façade of a devoted husband while secretly planning his wife’s murder. Characters manipulate and betray others to achieve their desires.
Beyond external deception there is the deep self-deception that Teddy practices. I was often reminded of George Costanza: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Teddy sees his petty degradations in a grandiose light. His petty affairs he sees as finding the “one woman in the world he ought to have married” (p22). “The fact that he had been certain so often before of having found her elsewhere did not affect the matter in the least.”
Teddy also weirdly tells Julia about Madeleine “because, having come during the last ten years to rely entirely upon Julia in every difficulty, he needed her help more than ever.”
Madeleine thinks most women haven’t developed beyond 12 years of age. In what ways does she herself seem childish?
Desire and Obsession
Infatuated with Madeleine, Teddy in Malice Aforethought is willing to take extreme measures to be with her. Ivy pretends to be pregnant. Chatford goes to Scotland Yard.
At first, Teddy isn’t even attracted to her (she’s nondescript and dowdily dressed). However, she’s described as “one of those fortunate people who can make every stranger feel that he or she is the person they’ve been longing in secret all their lives to meet.” She’s also very deferential, a throwback in a day and age that’s increasingly feeling “modern.” (“she never said a single word about her own aspirations and accomplishments. Yes, a girl like this was to be met only once in a lifetime.”)
Infatuation grows into obsession. Teddy leads a rich fantasy life. He dreams of being summoned to Buckingham Palace — Lord Bickleigh, the greatest surgeon, tennis player, and artist of all time. What starts out as a life without Julia fantasy morphs into a how to murder Julia fantasy. Were you able to identify with this sort of fantasy life? Do you have any idea seeds that grow to become consuming?
Anthony Berkeley Cox, author of Malice Aforethought, was known for his dry, sardonic wit and looked “beyond the straightforward puzzle aspect of the classic British Golden Age mystery and had begun to examine the psychological aspects of his protagonists” (Barry Forshaw). He was more interested in the puzzle of character than of plot (time, place, motive, and opportunity).
Malice Aforethought delves into the psychology of the murderer, the dark corners of the human mind, and the fine line between sanity and madness.
Teddy has what they call an inferiority complex. “In these days of glib reference to complexes, repressions, and fixations on every layman’s lips, it is not to be supposed that Dr Bickleigh did not know what was the matter with him. He could diagnose an inferiority complex, … But to diagnose is not to cure.” (p28) These words ring so true these days as well. Daily references to diagnoses of the self and others. What is the power of a diagnosis? Is a cure something we even work toward?
Today we might think in terms of imposter syndrome. What’s changed?
Let’s also talk about extremes — Teddy “felt uncouth in the presence of women, insignificant in the presence of men, and inferior to most strangers. Only when alone did he feel as good or even better than others.”
Teddy’s inferiority complex seems to have two roots: his physical stature, and his social background. So often physical traits can lead to mental dysregulations. Have you ever had such hangups?
“His father, whose vehemence in the opposite direction might have gone some little way to restore the balance, was dead now, and Dr. Bickleigh lived in continual dread that somebody who had known him and his position might appear in Wyvern’s Cross and denounce his son.” (p29)
One of the most tragic insights of Malice Aforethought — the way his father worked to better the next generation, only to have his son live in this way. How do we think about the gifts we received from the previous generation and about our gifts to the next generation?
Teddy “liked to be liked by the people he liked – and he did like most people.” (p30) The first part, a universal truism. The second part can be both charming and troubling.
Teddy cannot read a room. He respects idiots (Mr Torr). Julia and Ivy see through Madeleine, but Teddy cannot, even though he relies on Julia to fix things for him. Teddy punches Ivy in the face after her “test” of feigning pregnancy. Then he devises a “test” that’s absolutely idiotic and makes huge moves based on it. He doesn’t know when he’s being entrapped by the doctor and Chatford.
Ivy loves her abuser. She can read a room. She knows Teddy doesn’t love her anymore, but she just can’t let go. Even when he punches her in the face. Even when he insists on an abortion that could endanger her life. Even when she realizes he actually murdered Julia for Madeleine. She still perjures herself to try to protect him, trashing her marriage.
Teddy gratified “his hatred by reinstating a none too unwilling Ivy as his regular mistress. Chatford should pay that price for his damned interference.” Teddy tells Ivy that the day Julia died they met up earlier than she thought. “He who had been a doormat himself all his life till in one supreme gesture he had cast off doormattery for ever, now wanted a doormat of his own and Ivy was the ideal doormat.”
Does the author’s psychological portrayal feel realistic?
How did it feel to be in Teddy’s head through this journey in Malice Aforethought?
More About Teddy and His Superman Complex in Malice Aforethought
“In his duties, he had put away plenty of pet animals who had passed their usefulness. Now the time had come to put Julia away.”
“Julia was really a most exceptional woman. It was a pity, thought her husband with real regret, that she had got to die.”
“Dr. Bickleigh felt for [Julia] very strongly. Her drawn face and dulled eyes quite upset him; it was terrible that Julia should have to suffer like this, entirely through her own obstinacy. The sooner he was able to put her out of her pain the better.”
When Julia dies, Teddy feels “no emotion at all, no pity, remorse, fear, nor even responsibility.”
Teddy thinks, “Poor Julia! Really … it had been a merciful release; her life had never been happy. She was probably most grateful to him by now, wherever she was.”
He thinks, “a successful murder … brilliantly planned and flawlessly carried out, lifted one out of the category of worms.”
Teddy watches Chatford and Madeleine “eating death,” feeling “less pity for them than he had felt for Julia. In a way she had not deserved to die, and these two did. In a way, too, it was Madeleine who had really murdered Julia.”
Teddy knew “that in murder he had qualified not only as a fine artist, but as a superman. … To know that one really could rid oneself of anyone who became impossible … The only pity was that the artist in this particular medium should be unable to point proudly to his triumphs. Art for art’s sake.”
Chief Inspector Russell, CID, Scotland Yard, stops by. He’s kind, concerned, awkward, apologetic. Teddy sees Russell as a bumbling fool, and his hubris grows. He shreds Ivy’s reputation and says Chatford is out for revenge. They tour the home. In the attic, the incubator is visible, but Russell doesn’t seem to see it. After Russell leaves, Teddy “felt extremely pleased with himself. It had been an amusing evening.”
Societal (and Sexual) Norms and Hypocrisy
Malice Aforethought critiques the hypocrisy and double standards of middle-class society. Characters gossip and judge behind a veneer of respectability.
Miss Peavy and her maid (age 14) prepare tea. “Characters came up, were seen through, and retired conquered. Reputations littered the ground like snowflakes.”
Chatford mentions Teddy’s indiscretions. Ivy’s eyes flickered in appeal at Peavy, Torr, and Wapsworthy. “It was not necessary. With the rigid sex loyalty of women, all three denied vigorously having heard of a friend of Teddy’s previous to Miss Cranmere; though all three knew perfectly well who that friend was reputed to have been.”
Chatford tells Ivy her story is all over town. He says, “[I]f I’d known what you’d been before I asked you to marry me, I wouldn’t have looked at you again.”
Teddy thinks that perfectly ordinary societal norms aren’t real somehow. When Gwynyfryd objects that she would never come between husband and wife, Teddy finds that absurd. His level of bragging of his infidelity is bizarre.
Again, his thinking is so contradictory, he can’t read a room. He thinks himself frank and manly, while he shreds a woman’s reputation who loves him.
He thinks Chatford is an excellent guy and can’t imagine why Chatford hates him. Oooh right, Ivy…
Madeleine returns from a lengthy trip to Monte Carlo, Florence, Rome, and over half the rest of Europe. “Dr. Bickleigh, guilty knowing himself responsible for this odyssey, felt a perfect scoundrel when Madeleine told him how little she had enjoyed it all.”
Miss Peavy had stayed silent after Teddy confronted her. “Now, as soon as she had got well started, she wished she had done nothing of the sort. But it was too late to recant.” Have you ever felt like Miss Peavy feels in this scene?
While not the first spousal murder (The Notting Hill Mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, attempted in The Woman in White), Malice Aforethought is certainly the first to go into the psychological perspectives of marriage and murdering one’s spouse. Let’s talk about this marriage — she’s from a privileged background, she’s domineering, she’s taller than he is, she’s eight years his senior, and they have no children. There’s a class system in their own home.
News story: Julia’s body is exhumed. “WOMEN CHEER PRISONER” “A large crowd that included many women was waiting near the police court in the hope of seeing Dr. Bickleigh. When he appeared, cheers were raised, and many people struggled forward in an attempt to shake his hand. The prisoner smilingly acknowledged the ovation … a remarkable demonstration of sympathy with the accused man.”
Madeleine testifies. Sir Francis gently shreds her on the stand. Had she been thinking about divorce? Did she and Denny argue before he died of typhoid? Was she jealous of his past loves? His cross-examination establishes that “she is notoriously untruthful, malicious, and mentally unbalanced.” SENSATION!
Why have we always been such big fans of courtroom drama? (Courtroom scenes have been in many of the novels we’ve read, and we’ll see them again in The Case of the Velvet Claws.) Has the art and tools of cross-examination changed over the years?
How did you feel about the ending of Malice Aforethought? Did it surprise you? Was it an example of Karma (the moral responsibility and consequences of actions and the responsibility people must bear for their choices)? Or was it a social critique of the justice system? Or something else entirely?
Tea, Tonic, and Toxin is a book club and podcast for people who love mysteries, thrillers, introspection, and good conversation. Each month, your hosts, Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters, will discuss a game-changing mystery or thriller from the 19th and 20th centuries. Together, we’ll see firsthand how the genre evolved.
Along the way, we’ll entertain ideas, prospects, theories, doubts, and grudges, along with the occasional guest. And we hope to entertain you, dear friend. We want you to experience the joys of reading some of the best mysteries and thrillers ever written.
Teasers & Tidbits
Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest is more than just a gripping detective story. It’s also a political statement, inspired
When Dorothy L. Sayers wrote Whose Body? (her debut novel, published in 1923), she introduced a detective who would go
If you’re a fan of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, I’m sure you’re already familiar with Hercule Poirot, the eccentric Belgian
Long before he started writing his own detective stories, Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton was already a fan of the genre.