The Irony of Murder

The quest for justice has fascinated crime writers for generations. Justice is an ambiguous, multi-faceted concept, often at odds with strict application of the letter of the law, and the Sherlock Holmes stories were among the first to highlight this. In ‘The Abbey Grange’, Holmes makes it clear that, on occasion, he felt that he had done more harm by his discovery of the criminal than had been done by the crime. Other examples include ‘The Blue Carbuncle’, where he is prepared to commit a felony in the hope of saving a soul, and ‘Charles Augustus Milverton’, in which he does nothing to expose the blackmailer’s killer.

Stories dealing with justice frequently bristle with irony, and sometimes downright cynicism. This is true of innumerable mysteries focusing on the legal system, such as Scott Turow’s superb Presumed Innocent (1987), while Raymond Chandler’s biting original title for the classic private eye thriller Farewell, My Lovely (1940) was The Law Is Where You Buy It. In the modern age, there have been so many real-life stories about miscarriages of justice that novels about them no longer have shock value. But it was not always thus. In the days when the penalty for murder in Great Britain was capital punishment, a succession of novels recounting murderous activities from the criminal’s perspective focused, with lashings of irony, on an assortment of miscarriages of justice. Typically, a murderer might escape the gallows yet suffer some other dreadful fate. If due process of the law proved fallible, happenstance would throw a spanner in the works at just the moment the villain thought he had got away with it. The names of the authors who worked in this field – the Ironists, let us call them – are now largely forgotten, but their best work was imaginative and intriguing.

Oddly enough, the Ironist whose reputation has triumphantly survived the years deserves his fame to books written in another genre. C.S.Forester is celebrated as the creator of Horatio Hornblower, but he began his career with a crime novel of enduring power. Payment Deferred (1926) broke fresh ground with its doom-laden account of a poisoning by a desperate, debt-plagued bank worker from Dulwich. William Marble appears to get away with murder and speculates so profitably with his ill-gotten gains that he becomes rich. But the crime haunts him and Forester offers an excellent twist to the tale.

What was new about Payment Deferred was not Forester’s telling of the story from the murderer’s perspective. R.Austin Freeman’s The Singing Bone (1912), for instance, introduced readers to the so-called ‘inverted’ story in which the criminal’s activities are depicted before Dr Thorndyke is shown following up the clues that enable him to solve the puzzle. Forester’s achievement was to combine a clever plot with a bleakly atmospheric portrayal of character laced with irony: ‘Even when the shadow the gallows lies across one’s path one cannot help feeling a little elated when one has just received, and paid into a new account at a new bank, receiving the homage of a bank manager, the sum of twenty-seven thousand pounds odd.’

Forester followed up with Plain Murder (1930). Three advertising men kill a colleague to avoid the grim prospect of the dole queues and the ringleader, Morris acquires a taste for crime. But he gets his come-uppance in the end: ‘For months now he had opposed himself to the law and it was not the law which defeated him.’ The book remains a good read, but did little more than repeat the approach of Payment Deferred. Soon Forester began to concentrate on historical fiction: perhaps this is why students of our genre tend to overlook his contribution to it.

Anthony Berkeley has received much more credit as a ground-breaker, and is the outstanding Ironist. However, his masterpiece Malice Aforethought (1931), written under the name of Francis Iles, has similarities to Payment Deferred that other commentators have seldom noted. Where Berkeley/Iles scored was in his combination of irony with comedy. He was a much wittier writer than Forester and his portrayal of Bickleigh’s misadventures is splendid. The next Iles novel, Before the Fact (1932) was even more ambitious, telling the story from the point of view of the victim rather than the murderer. The victim, Lina Aysgarth, is, however, so maddeningly passive that the critic Leroy Panek said that ‘any reasonable reader… wants to strangle her for her abysmal stupidity even before she is murdered at the end of the book.’

Trial and Error (1937), published under the Berkeley name, recounts Lawrence Todhunter’s attempts to commit murder for altruistic motives and is a classic of ironic crime fiction. A couple of years later, the final Iles title appeared. In As for the Woman, Alan Littlewood becomes infatuated with the wife of a doctor. The modern reader instinctively assumes that the story is in the tradition of Double Indemnity, with a femme fatale inciting her lover to murder her husband, but Iles offers a couple of unexpected twists on the standard plot. The novel also offers an insight into what passed for explicit sexual action before the Second World War. What seems tame, and indeed naïve, today was judged ‘frank to the point of indecency’ by J.D. Beresford in a Manchester Guardian review. Berkeley/Iles, a prominent crime writer of the Golden Age, must have been stunned by the lack of acclaim for his latest essay in irony. His usual publisher rejected it, supposedly because they found it too ‘sadistic’, although this sounds like one of those feeble excuses that publishers reach for whenever an author on their list tries to do something different. When another publisher took it on, they foolishly stated on the jacket that the book ‘is not intended to thrill. It is no more, and at the same time no less, than a sincere attempt to depict the love of a young, inexperienced man for a woman much older than himself, with all its idealism, its heart burnings, and its inevitable disappointments’. This dire impression of slushiness is reinforced by the description of the book on the title page as ‘a love story’.

With As for the Woman, Iles showed how murder often happens by accident. A recurrent theme in the work of Ironists is that guilt and innocence are as much a matter of chance as of design. Unfortunately, he learned the hard way that the same is true of success with fiction. He was let down not only by publishers but also by Alfred Hitchcock. The Master of Suspense filmed Before the Fact as Suspicion, but changed the ending, allegedly because Cary Grant could not be presented as a psychopath, and thus missed the whole point of the book. The gifted author lived on for over 30 years but, his confidence seemingly shattered, never published another novel. An ironic end to the career of an author addicted to irony.

Malice Aforethought influenced several writers who were not content simply to produce conventional whodunnits. Richard Hull, one of the few crime-writing accountants, began with a cunning tale of the biter bit, Murder of My Aunt (1934). Hull was as bold an experimenter as Berkeley/Iles, although not as gifted a writer. Like most of the Ironists, Hull peopled his books with unpleasant individuals – in My Own Murderer (1940) he joked by giving his own real name, Richard Henry Sampson, to one of the least appealing of them all. The title and theme of Murder Isn’t Easy (1936) might be applied to several of Hull’s books (Agatha Christie took a very different line three years later with Murder is Easy). Excellent Intentions (1938) employs irony effectively in a courtroom setting but although Hull continued to publish after the Second World War, the quality of his books faltered.

He still came up with nice ideas. Last First (1947) begins with the last chapter of the book and is dedicated to ‘those who habitually read the last chapter first’. The snag is that the story that then unfolds is tedious; Ruth Rendell’s very different A Judgment in Stone (1977) shows how a writer of the highest rank may carry off such a difficult trick effectively. A Matter of Nerves (1950) offers a murderer’s description of his crime, and its investigation, but conceals his identity until the end. An ingenious concept, but the execution is contrived. Hull’s last book before he too retreated from the fray was The Martineau Murders (1953). It amalgamates elements from Payment Deferred, Malice Aforethought and Murder of My Aunt, but although it begins amusingly, the finale is a damp squib.

Originality and ingenuity are to be prized in fiction. To achieve both regularly is beyond most novelists and this is why, as Julian Symons said in his history of the genre Bloody Murder, ‘the Iles school…showed a certain lack of staying power.’ Yet other Ironists produced a handful of minor classics. The Vicar’s Experiments (1932) by C.E.Vulliamy writing as Anthony Rolls, is an entertaining take on the miscarriage of justice theme, but by the time Vulliamy again chronicled the disintegration of a successful murderer’s personality, in Don among the Dead Men (1952), the humour was beginning to pall. As Symons put it, ‘the weakness of Iles’s followers was that they found it almost impossible to resist being facetious’. More impressive is Bruce Hamilton’s book about a homicidal dentist, Middle Class Murder (1936), which benefits from the infusion of a sharp political perspective into a story of about ‘the true middle-class murderer, a figure of awful menace and awful fascination.’

Another writer with a political axe to grind, Raymond Postgate, wrote tomes such as The Bolshevik Theory before producing one of the finest of all ironic mysteries, Verdict of Twelve (1940). It opens with a quotation from Karl Marx, about whom he had published a book seven years earlier, and is memorable for its focus on the attitudes and backgrounds of members of a jury in a murder trial. Postgate wrote only two more, less powerful crime novels before turning his attention to The Good Food Guide and books such as Portuguese Wine.

Like Berkeley/Iles, F.Tennyson Jesse was a versatile writer whose interest in true crime influenced her approach to fiction; unlike him, she was not interested in leavening her ironies with humour. The title of As for the Woman came from a dismissive comment by the judge during the famous trial of Edith Thompson. Jesse’s A Pin to see the Peepshow (1934) was based on an imagined version of Thompson’s tragic story. It is a dark, angry telling of a miscarriage of justice which, even after 70 years, remains a compelling read.

Edward Grierson was a barrister (later, a magistrate) who used his expert knowledge of the machinery of justice to construct, in Reputation for a Song (1952) a superb exposition of the fallibility of the law. Again, the mystery does not concern the identity of the murderer, but whether he will escape the hangman. Again, the finale is deeply ironic – although much less comforting even than the endings to Payment Deferred and Malice Aforethought. In the same year, John Bingham made his debut with My Name is Michael Sibley, a bleak study in police interrogation in which Berkeley/Iles’ influence can be detected. But the day of the Ironists was drawing to a close.

In the past half century, crime writers concerned with justice have increasingly made their points without resort to ingenious plot twists. Irony tends to be incidental rather than central to most modern crime novels. Even so, the work of the Ironists, including some of the obscure titles, is worth seeking out. Their novels can still be read with enjoyment, as well as the occasional frisson of surprise.

This article first appeared in ‘Sherlock’