Friday, October 21, 2011

Sympathy for the Devil

There's a theory that the reason why women supposedly read mysteries more than men is because women like the way mysteries set things to rights. I'm dubious about that, since the implication would be that men don't care much whether order is restored. Actually, now that I think about my husband's untidiness and talent for losing things, maybe there's something to the theory after all.

But I'm getting off track. My real purpose is to talk about a couple of mysteries in which things may not be set to rights. We don't see the story through the eyes of the good guys and follow along as they nab the criminals and restore law and order. In these books, we see things through the eyes of the criminal and we are meant to want him to get away with his crime–or at least to want it a little bit.

One of the first in that vein that I've read is Malice Aforethought, by Francis Iles (one of the pseudonyms of Anthony Berkeley Cox). We know who the murderer is from the very first line of the book, one of the most intriguing in crime fiction: "It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter."

Dr. Edmund Bickleigh is a bit of a milquetoast who is squashed under the thumb of his shrewish wife, Julia. He has played around for years, but now he's stuck. He's fallen in love, or at least an overpowering lust, and his inamorata will not consider marrying a divorcé. Bickleigh is convinced of his own genius when he comes up with his plan to rid himself of Julia by way of a more lethal (and far less legal) method than divorce. If only he'd listened to his wife's assessment of his talents! Things keep going wrong for poor Bickleigh and he comes up with ever-more elaborate and deadly schemes to cover his tracks.

This is a darkly satirical look at a village where all appears placid and respectable, while every deadly sin imaginable teems beneath the surface. Malice Aforethought was made into a 1979 four-part BBC miniseries and a 2005 Granada Television production shown on PBS's Mystery! series.

It's a big jump from the weekend tennis parties and dalliances of the Devonshire village of Wyvern Cross to an assassination plot against General Charles de Gaulle, but strap on your seatbelt, because that's where we're going. Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal is a gripping suspense thriller about a professional assassin, code-named the Jackal, who is hired by a right-wing group to kill de Gaulle, whom they believe has betrayed France by granting independence to Algeria.

We are led to identify with the Jackal through the book's descriptions of his lengthy, methodical and ingenious preparations for the job. We learn a lot about getting fake identification papers and passports, smuggling weapons, tracking a target and laying false trails. This is good educational stuff. After all, you never know when that kind of expertise might come in handy.

The assassination plot is revealed to the French authorities, but not the Jackal's real name or even a description. Now the chase is on. We're introduced to the men who are set on his trail: Claude Lebel, a French police detective, and Detective Superintendent Bryn Thomas of Scotland Yard, who becomes involved when the Prime Minister insists that Britain help foil the assassination plot.

In the cat-and-mouse game that follows, it's hard not to identify with the Jackal, even though he ruthlessly uses and disposes of people along the way in his mission. At the same time, Lebel and Thomas are so often just one step behind and we want their hard work to be rewarded too. The climax will definitely raise your blood pressure, and it's followed by a satisfying puzzle of an epilogue.

The Day of the Jackal was made into a 1973 film of the same name, starring Edward Fox as the Jackal. If you've never seen the movie, you're in for a real treat.

I was going to talk about another classic in the sub-genre of mysteries told from the point of view of the murderer, but then I remembered that we don't realize that's what's happening until the end. Can you identify this 1926 novel? If you need a hint, look down a few lines. (If you don't want to have the plot spoiled for you, in case you don't know this book and might read it later, you may want to avoid reading the comments on this post.)

Hint: The title of a book about the book is in the form of a question.


  1. I had to check Stop You're Killing Me for publication dates, but have the answer. Great book!

  2. I know the answer, too, and for me it's the only one of her books to have real, not cardboard, people as characters.

  3. I always knew we had a well-read group here!

  4. I knew the answer right away (and that's a first.I usually sit at the computer with my jaw dropped in awe at how knowledgeable everyone else is). This book is iconic, archetypal{is that a word?},a landmark in mystery fiction.It's also extremely good, one the very best from a prolific author of very variable quality.
    P.S. There is not only a book about this book in
    the form of a question, but also a famous
    article ditto.

    Jonas Oldacre

  5. Sister Mary,
    or did you mean the article? I have a very vague
    memory of having seen a book using the title of
    this book, but I can't find it after googling for twenty minutes, whereas the article is very well-
    known. (Another first. I don't think I've ever
    been able to use "whereas" plausibly before.)


  6. The typo boogie strikes again!

  7. Jonas, it's definitely a book about the book that is in the form of a question. There may also be an article, for all I know.

    To be absolutely honest, my hint originally said that the title of the book itself was in the form of a question, but that was because I mis-remembered the title of the book. Very embarrassing. Luckily, my good friend Georgette Spelvin caught my mistake and fixed it.

  8. Sister, now I'm confused. Is the answer the book or the book about the book?

    Jonas, welcome! I adore whereas, therefore, heretofore, and thereby! They feel both literate and satisfyingly economical.

  9. The title of the 1926 mystery book I wrote about at the end of the blog post is not in the form of a question, but when I first wrote the post, the hint said it was. Georgette fixed my error by changing the hint so that it referred to a book about the 1926 mystery. The title of that book-about-the-book is in the form of a question.

    The answer to my question in the blog is the title of the 1926 book, not the book about that book.

    Clear as mud now? I think maybe I should never have gone down this path at all. . .

  10. As it's been 3 days since the good(?)Sister posed this question, and as Bonnie and Periphera already know the answer, I hope it's O.K. if I give what I'm fairly confident is the solution.
    The mystery is Christie's THE MURDER OF ROGER
    ACKROYD, one of the first books in which the
    narrator was the murderer,and in which this fact is not revealed till the end. I say "one of the
    first". I'm sure the intimidatingly well-read
    posters of RMD will know of earlier ones. The
    book in the form of a question must be Pierre
    Bayard:WHO KILLED ROGER ACKROYD? (M.Bayard also
    Now, THAT sounds just my kind of thing.) He lays
    into crime books with the tedious arguments
    that must be familiar to all RMD followers.
    (implausible plots, shallow readers et expletive
    deleted cetera). The article I was thinking of
    was by the writer Edmund Wilson,one of 3 he
    wrote in The New Yorker in 1944/45, titled WHO
    contempt for mysteries and their readers that
    makes Bayard seem like a tolerant pussycat. This
    is quoted or referred to in many of the surveys
    of mystery fiction I've read, usually as an
    example of intellectual snobbery. I knew about
    Wilson, but I'd never heard of Bayard's book
    before (thank you,Google), but I don't think I'll bother to read it while there is so much
    GOOD stuff in my To Be Read pile.

    Be happy, read on,
    Jonas Oldacre

  11. OMG, I wish RMD had an Edit function function for
    computer dummies like me.

  12. Jason, I think you named it. I was aware of the book about the book, but not the book about the book about the book (whew.) What authors are in your TBR pile?

  13. Jonas, you got it. So thank heavens we can now stop talking about the book, the book about the book, the article about the book, and so on.

    I will definitely need to look for a copy of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. It could come in handy for my book club sometimes.

  14. Jonas, it's nice to see you.

    Peri and I are curious about your TBR pile. How about giving us a little peek at the books you're going to read?