About a month ago I wrote about how much I had enjoyed Frances Iles' classic novel, Malice Aforethought. I bought this one at the same time, but have only just got around to reading it. And I have to say that, good as I thought the first one was, this one is even better. In the small amount of criticism I have read, the two novels are sort of lumped together as being ground-breaking psychological thrillers, and so indeed they are. Both of them reveal the identity of the murderer in the first paragraph -- in MA it is Dr Edmund Bickleigh, whose increasingly troubled mental world is brilliantly depicted as he slips further and further into psychosis and self deception. Here it is Johnnie Aysgarth, husband to Lina -- Lina, who has "lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realised that she was married to a murderer". But the comments I've read so far have rather missed the point about Before the Fact, I think. Yes, we do indeed get an insight into the mind of the murderer himself, but the real interest of this extraordinary novel is in what it reveals about the mind of Lina herself. At twenty-eight, when she first meets Johnnie, she suffers from very low self-esteem, comparing herself unfavourably with her very pretty younger sister Joyce, though in fact, as Iles makes clear, she is both intelligent and attractive. Johnnie, on the other hand, is totally gorgeous -- confident, good-looking, amusing, and oozing with charm. He sets out to woo Lina with such energy and concentration that, despite her misgivings -- she is an heiress, with a respectable private income, and fears he may be after her money -- she is completely swept off her feet. Early married life is bliss beyond anything she could ever have imagined, and Johnnie seems to be absolutely besotted with her. But after the honeymoon she receives the first of a series of shocks. Johnnie is absolutely penniless, having borrowed £1000 to marry her and having spent it all, though not on the rent or the furniture, which are yet to be paid for. Lina, appalled and distressed, agrees to bail him out, and he promises to do better, to get a job, and to be more responsible. Lina believes him. And that, essentially, is the pattern into which this terrible and tragic marriage falls into for the next ten or so years. Lina adores Johnnie. She adores him so intensely that as more and more of his failings appear she manages, after initial anger and tears, to forgive him, even when he sells her antiques, forges her signature on cheques, gambles, lies, and cheats. She does leave him once, when she discovers he has been serially unfaithful to her throughout their marriage, but even then, after almost committing herself to a much nicer, kinder and better man, she is unable to resist Johnnie's promises that he has reformed and will never stray again. But it is after they make their hopeful new start -- Lina once again convinced that Johnnie does indeed adore her as much as he says he does -- that she discovers evidence that he has murdered her father. That is when the real slippery slope opens up in front of her, and the last part of the novel shows her agonies of mind as she tries to make sense of this, and of further dreadful revelations. The end of the novel is indeed very shocking, but in fact does have a dramatic rightness in the light of what has gone before.
So the real psychological interest here is not the mind of Johnnie Aysgarth, who the reader (though not Lina) realises is an amoral crook right from the start. It is the mind of poor self-deceived Lina, a co-dependent in the clearest sense, whose desperate need to feel loved coupled with a powerful inferiority complex leads her deeper and deeper into self-deception. Of course Lina has moments of clarity when she fully realises what Johnnie is and what he has done (and what he plans to do) but she is unable to act in what she knows, deep down, would be the only moral, ethical, and safe way. Indeed it is her confusion and muddle that are so compelling here. I expect everyone knows a Lina -- not, hopefully married to a murderer, but prepared to forgive infidelities, cruelties, fecklessness, mental and physical abuse, all for the sake of what they see as true love, probably far beyond what they think they deserve. Yes, a real tragedy, and a really fine book. Hitchock made a film of it, Suspicion, with Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant. I think I may have seen it but am setting out to find a copy now. But even if you have seen it, please do read the book. Superb.
BTW I've just looked up the film on imdb and see that Hitchcock changed the ending!