Some would argue that Malice Aforethought is a murder mystery only in the sense that a murder is committed and, for the greater part of the book, there is a mystery as to whether the murderer will be arrested and found guilty. That is indeed true. It is also true that one of the mysteries explored in the book is why seemingly ordinary people commit murder. Yet another mystery explored is the way in which readers, when invited into the point of view of a particular character, often find themselves drawn into the perspective of that character.Malice Aforethought lays out the difficulties of navigating the complex social hierarchy of England between the wars and it is surprising frank discussion of the relationships between men and woman at that time.
For the reader who only knows England of that time from reading “cozies” the frank admission that Ivy was, more than once, Dr. Bickleigh’s mistress will come as a shock. Even in the supposedly more sophisticated contemporary detective stories of Ellery Queen and Philo Vance such behaviour is only alluded to when the woman is of “that type.” What the reader realizes is that while the trappings of life have changed much the reality those trappings disguises has changed little.As was true in the earlier The Murder of Roger Ackroyd we experience the people and events in the book through the eyes and mind of the murderer although in Malice the reader does not read his actual words that same reader is told what he is thinking and feeling.
And in neither book is the narration unreliable. In Roger Ackroyd the murderer doesn’t write that he didn’t kill Ackroyd he simply doesn’t tell the reader some key details such as ‘then I killed him.’ However because Roger Ackroyd really is a mystery, in the sense that the reader is not told that the narrator is the murderer until close to the end of the book, there is little exploration of what drove him to that action. In Malice Aforethought Iles allows us to gradually realize that while the reader is reliably told what Bickleigh is thinking and feeling Bickleigh himself has a undependable understanding of other people and himself.
As the reader comes to recognize that Bickleigh’s own perceptions are coloured by his psychological needs the deeper mystery becomes how mistaken is Bickleigh in the natures and motivations of those around him.While Malice Aforethought is set in a time that feels foreign to most modern readers Iles’ examination of what makes the person next door into a murderer is surprisingly relevant and wonderfully refreshing.
This is particularly true in his choice to make Bickleigh’s motivations down to earth and hard to distance oneself from. Most of us have not had traumatic childhoods. Most of us have not had horrible tragedies take place in our life. Most of us are, however, ordinary people faced with the day in and day out pick pricks of living with bad choices and suffering from the routine humiliations of life. And so the final mystery is -- is the only thing that keeps each of us from walking down the same path as Dr. Bickleigh happenstance and lack of opportunity?