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Before the Fact – Anthony Berkeley (a.k.a. Francis Iles): the basis for Hitchcock’s Suspicion

Before the Fact1Every time I watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, the ending drives me nuts. Why didn’t Lina die? The story was entirely set up for Johnnie to be the murderer! He should have been the murderer. I enjoy the rest of the movie, but that ending always gets me, so I thought perhaps I should read the novel that the movie was adapted from. I thought it would be more satisfying.

But it wasn’t. It does have that ending I missed from the film, but the rest of the story is aggravating in a way that the movie never was.

Before the Fact was published in 1932 by Francis Iles (pseudonym for Anthony Berkeley). 1932 was in the middle of the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction, which I usually associate with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, but Anthony Berkeley is nothing like them. Before the Fact is not a mystery. It is really a crime novel, according to Colin Dexter, who wrote the introduction to my copy of the novel. The first line of the book announces that after eight years of marriage, Lina discovered that her husband is a murderer. The book is about those eight years leading up to the discovery and the two years after and about the gradual unfolding of the true character of Johnnie and the extreme lengths Lina is willing to go to forgive and protect him.

Lina McLaidlaw is twenty-eight, intellectual, with parents who will leave her all their money when they die. When she meets Johnnie Aysgarth, she thinks she sees through him, but in his pursuit of her she persuades herself that he is really a good man with a fine mind. After she marries him, she learns that he does not have a particularly fine mind, and he certainly isn’t a good man. But she’s crazy about him. He’s exciting, he’s virile and she’s willing to overlook the little things that gradually pop up: first betting on horses, a few lies, then items go missing from the house, he steals from his cousin; finally he forges her signature on a check. It is all distressing, she gets angry, but she forgives him. She comes to realize that Johnnie doesn’t see things the way other people does; he’s like a child. She’s sure she can handle him and thinks she’s taking a firm line with him.

This goes on eight years until everything blows up and she discovers that he’s had affairs with nearly all her friends, neighbors and a few servants (which perhaps explains the origins of the flirty attitude between Cary Grant’s Johnnie and the pretty maid in the film). Lina and Johnnie have an argument and he admits that he never loved her, he was just after her money and she leaves him in a fury, only to return to him and let him convince her that really he’s always loved her all along. Even after she figures out that he’s a murderer, she still forgives him. Her rationalization?

“It just meant that Johnnie was not responsible for what he did and she was his keeper, with a trust that she must never relax for an instant.”

Suspicion-1941-classic-movies-16283188-800-600

Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in Suspicion

Ha! She seems to find fulfillment in that role, but the irony is that she actually has no control over his actions and eventually he turns against even her, his keeper. Her delusion is demonstrated perfectly by an incident involving her nephew. Her sister sends her to check on the nephew and when she finds him doing something he shouldn’t be, she tells him to stop and congratulates herself on how she is not a doting parent and so knows how to manage him better. But the minute she’s gone, the nephew goes back to doing what he was doing.

What’s funny is that Lina is actually a very intelligent woman and she comes to see through Johnnie fairly quickly, learns when he’s up to something and read the signs. But she’s never able to stop him. She thinks she’s smarter than she really is, or else underestimates him. And she’s an incredibly weak-willed woman. She just floats along and Johnnie manipulates her any way he wants. You want to reach through the book and shake her. And what makes it harder to take than the movie is that it goes on for ten years!

What was interesting about the book is the tone that Berkeley (as Francis Ilse) adopts. It is lightly mocking and ironic. He targets everybody, but especially Lina and her self-delusions and never employs a serious tone. The book could almost be a satire. Even serious moments come out lightly comic, such as when she suspects that Johnnie is about to rob his friend blind. She is doing her hair while thinking and Berkeley writes that, “Whether one’s husband is meditating larceny on a grand scale or whether he’s not, one’s hair must still be curled.”

Another mocking comment regarding Lina’s rethinking of her suspicions: “It had just been intuition and Lina had read enough books by men to know how fallible feminine intuition is.”

Joan Fontaine’s Lina looks like a tower of strength in comparison to the woman of the novel. As a side note, Cary Grant was perfectly cast. Reading the book, you wonder how Johnnie can possibly be getting away with everything, but when you picture Cary Grant, suddenly it makes more sense. But it’s still a frustrating book. When I finished the book, I couldn’t help sighing and exclaiming in exasperation. She lets herself die and still deludes herself into thinking that Johnnie will miss her. And unlike Hitchcock – who intended to have Lina write a letter exposing her husband – her main concern is that Johnnie not get caught. Arrgh!

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2015 in Books

 

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