Before The Fact by Francis Iles (also writing as Anthony Berkeley), and The Man Who Sold Death by James Munro are both decidedly old-fashioned, but in utterly different ways. They were published in 1932 and 1964 respectively, and both are completely dislocated from modern conventions of crime writing, although the modern psychological thriller is discernible in the Iles, and the brutal, super-charged action hero in the Munro. Harriet Devine wrote a fascinating review of Before The Fact on her blog, and I came across the Munro through the quiet but stimulating pages of Slightly Foxed.
In Before the Fact, we know from the first line that Johnny Aysgarth, Lina's feckless husband, is a murderer, although it takes a long time to find out who his (first)victim was. She leaves him, finds a decent man, but throws him over, and goes back to him, only to discover – telegraphed slightly, to say the least – that his next victim is herself. In The Man Who Sold Death, a working class boy, thrown up without a role in life after the war comes to an end, puts his violent skills to arms running to Algeria, makes a lot of money, and is being hunted by French extremists who hate him for having helped the separatists. He has to kill them before they kill him; fortunately, he is able to do this while serving his country through Department K, an "unacknowledged part of MI5" (clear reminders of Creasey, of whom I wrote not long ago).
There can be little doubt that Before the Fact is the more accomplished of these books by a country mile; it is better written, it has both a more interesting and a more plausible premise, it breaks new ground (as far as I know) in the plot, and achieves a degree of uncertainty about the outcome until late in the book. It is a shame, then, that I prefer The Man Who Sold Death, which for all its unreality and slightly chilling violence, tempered by unbelievable redeeming love, seems to me a more honest book. It sets out to tell an exciting story of murder and mayhem, in which the good bad guy comes out on top, killing the bad bad guys and serving his country as well, and getting the girl – and that’s what it does. It really is the most awful tosh! You like it, fine. You don’t like it, you go elsewhere. It’s all one to Munro.
Whereas Before The Fact sets out to be chilling, a psychological thriller and a study in love under pressure. At first, it’s engaging enough – though pretty snob ridden and cliché driven – but one thing lets it down, and that’s the heroine. Lina is just so wet; she’s supposed to be intelligent, but she can’t see what’s under her own eyes, again and again; she’s completely unable to make a decision; and she is a naive poltroon who is unable to save herself when she knows the danger. Sure, there are women (and men) like that, but of few of them are we told how clever and modern and independent they are. I think Iles just couldn’t make his mind up, and the failure to draw Lina at all convincingly strikes a fatal blow at this book. Interestingly, Francis Iles apparently called this “a detective story for women”, which may explain the difference between Harriet’s review and mine!
Harriet - we may disagree about this book, but this review compares Iles to Tolstoy and Flaubert! I think you and I might be able to agree that he's not quite in that class!