#535: The Colour of Murder (1957) by Julian Symons

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John Wilkins has never quite fitted in anywhere: not in his father’s affections, not in the Army, not at his tennis club, not even in his marriage.  Even when he feels as if he acquits himself well at something, there’s still a part of his mind he closes off for fear that he’ll realise “that the whole thing is a daydream and you’re just being stupid”.  And so when a chance encounter with librarian Sheila Morton stirs in Wilkins something he’s not experienced for quite some time — “I’m not attractive to women” he tells us on more than one occasion — it’s also the first step along a road that ends with murder.  The question is, whose murder?

The canniness of Wilkins as a character is that he’s essentially you and me: there’s nothing significantly unpleasant about him, but he’s nevertheless left with an impression of never quite doing the right thing, or of somehow worrying that’s he’s always on the wrong side of someone.  Who among us hasn’t doubted our own ability or willingness to do our job?  Or questioned the strength and worth of the relationships we have with those around us?  The first half of this novel, which mostly takes the form of a first-person statement made by Wilkins to a psychiatrist, does a wonderful job of making him seem only slightly more cracked than any one of us while also humanising him with some beautifully-observed humour:

May was very economical, good at making scratch meals from some bits of  cold meat and some left-over vegetables — at times it seemed we had nothing day after day but bits of stuff left over, and I used to wonder what they could be left over from.

It is in his dissatisfaction with his wife May that Wilkins seizes at the faint glimmer of friendship and interest extended by Sheila — a fragment of a letter part way through Wilkins’ narration makes clear Sheila’s own view of things — and through a mixture of willful ignorance, frank fantasy, and the sort of delusional hopefulness that has made many a murderer (fictional, and possibly real) Wilkins finds himself orchestrating a holiday in Brighton with May at the same time Sheila is there with her sickly father.  And then, following one of the occasional blackouts that have been plaguing him since a young age, Wilkins wakes up one morning to the facts of a body on the beach, blood on his clothes, and suspicion circling him like water going down a drain.

This is an odd book.  Working against it are that Symons evidently wishes to extend the scope of the GAD novel but in doing so loses complete hold on the sort of book he’s trying to extend.  This is full of the sorts of little ideas on which the puzzle plot has hinged for years — someone reading the time off a clock in the reflection of a mirror, for one, giving rise to a vitally important discrepancy at the heart of the whole affair — thrown in seemingly for nothing more than comfortably familiar foot-holds for how little Symons exploits them.  When you get to the end of this, really how much of what came before actually mattered?  This isn’t really a study of a crime, nor of a personality, nor of a fracturing marriage or mind, nor of the uptight trappings of the society that surrounds the events or the impact of those events on those who remain.   None of that is ever really confronted, there’s far too much looseness in every aspect, and so you end up with something that really could mean or be about anything.  You might call that bold, I call it dissatisfying.

Those blackouts, wherein Wilkins loses any sense of where he’s been or what he’s done, are really just an excuse for there to be no rigorous plotting around the central murder; the court case wants to both scorn the legal system and celebrate it, and once it’s all over everyone gets a deliberately vague paragraph or two before a needless revelation throws more doubt upon that which was already in doubt (indeed, for all the “ironic twist” Martin Edwards promises in his introduction, I was rather agog that this aspect of things was never even considered — it’s GAD 101, people!).  To write a book in which everything is in the air and no cleverness is deployed in providing any sense of answer to virtually every question — the cut on Wilkins’ thumb, for one, is explained in staggeringly contrasting ways, neither of which is ever truly accounted for — is that crime writing?  Was Symons’ opposition to the puzzle novel simply that he wasn’t that big on plots as a whole?  It would appear so on this first encounter.

In its favour, however, is some excellent prose — it’s a mostly very easy read, up until the judge’s summation of the trial pointlessly and laboriously restates everything you’ve just read, like the idea of contradictory evidence is going to be new to anyone — and a fascinating cultural two-headedness in regard to gender and sexual mores.  See, for instance, Uncle Dan’s nod-and-wink acknowledgement of what he sees as Wilkins having a “harem” of women on the go, yet castigating Sheila to Wilkins’ face because she’s had — gasp! — three separate boyfriends.  There’s an altogether slightly uncomfortable misogyny about Wilkins happily calling his wife “a bitch”, or the victim in the murder case that brings defence barrister Magnus Newton to his attention “a slut”, and just as you worry you won’t get this taste out of your mouth Symons throws in the unabashedly unapologetic prostitute Betty Prenton who incites paroxysms of shock from investigator Mr. Lambie when she outlines how much she enjoys her work and throws sackfuls of scorn upon those societal trappings Symons has both needled and revelled in:

“But you can’t like it. ” Mr. Lambie was scandalised. “I mean you’re in a sense, well, an outcast from society,  you can’t like that.”

“___________ society,” she said, and snapped her fingers.  “Do you think I want to talk to the silly bitches who haven’t got an idea in their heads beyond marriage and children and housekeeping?”

Some great descriptions fill out the characters we see but never really know (Mr. Lambie himself “looked rather like a clerk in an insurance company, one who missed promotion and knows that life holds nothing for him now but a steady descent to the grave”), and the brevity and clarity with which certain actions are measured is simply gorgeous (“Jacket and trousers were now…handed round to the jury, who saw for themselves the [blood]stains that might help to keep a man in prison for years”).  From a linguistic perspective, too, it’s interesting to note now that “making love” would appear to refer to conjugal activity where previously it was  synonym for ‘wooing’ — and the bluntness of the context in which this is used was a little surprising after the more measured decorum of the 1930s!

Whether or not I’m falling out of love with detection, the one thing this book has made me realise is how much I value plot.  Symons here does not plot, not in the sense that a series of actions are relayed because of how they combine to achieve an overall effect or mechanism.  Symons’ essential idea here is devoid of any such cleverness, simply being an opening and an ending, with much of what occurs between entirely interchangeable and pretty much exclusively without any resolution or design behind it.  It actually reminds me of a Jim Thompson novel with the guts ripped out — the casual violence against women, the male central character trapped in an unsuccessful attempt to achieve something better for himself and being undone by the flaws inherent in his character….but Symons’ far more genteel wanderings lack the urgency such a story requires, and until he pungles up with something more deliberate I don’t think he and I are going to start a love affair just yet.

~

See also

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: Overall my first taste of Julian Symons’ work was very positive. He is able to make a potentially rather unpleasant lead character compelling and convincing while injecting his story with a surprising amount of wit. I would certainly suggest this to fans of the more psychological approach to crime fiction advanced in novels by Iles and Rendell.

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: I suppose this isn’t an inverted mystery as we are left for a long time before we discover whether Wilkins committed the murder or not, but it has all the hallmarks of that genre. And it’s not a genre that I particularly relish, interesting denouement or not. We either spend an age learning about the motivations for a murder, or an age learning nothing that’s really relevant to the plot…

29 thoughts on “#535: The Colour of Murder (1957) by Julian Symons

  1. Sorry that this one didn’t work for you as much as it did for me. I do see your points about the work though and I can understand the position you come at this from. Symons does embrace a certain woolliness around the plot which could be frustrating.

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    • It’s interesting because of my understanding of Symons’ issues with the detective novel — its narrowness, essentially — and how he, if anything, writes here a story that in no way improves on that type of plot. There’s no broader point, everything is far too vague and under-developed, and where someone like Francis Iles could stab a rapier of observation into a conventional setup Symons appears blunt and unsure what he’s aiming for.

      The complete absence of resolution on any of the features of this may be what he wanted from his fiction, but that’s absolutely not what the detective novel of the 1930s was about. It’s a bit like complaining about the current Aspiration Woman in Peril trend because the books don’t have characters discussing the merits of theology for most of their length before someone trips while getting of an escalator in the last five pages. I’m…confused!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am sadly rather underread when it comes to Symons though I liked this well enough and really enjoyed The Man Who Killed Himself. I think this and that book both fit a crime fiction label better so I would be curious to read anything he wrote (if anything) that is more along the lines of a traditional mystery setup to see what his approach to that type of story would be.

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        • This is, currently, the only Symons I’ve read — fiction or otherwise. The Belting Inheritance sounds a little more traditional, it’s Brat Farrar, essentially, so that will be a good one to compare (which, one presumes, is part of why the BL chose to reprint it), and I’m curious about his short fiction, but one thing at a time,

          And then there’s Bloody Murder, of course, to see what the precise problem he had was, straight from the horse’s mouth,

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  2. I didn’t like this one, and have no plans to revisit Symons. I wonder if I’m biased against him because of his work in slagging off the GAD that I know and love, but regardless, didn’t enjoy this and I’ve plenty of other tittles to read…

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    • I have The Belting Inheritance and haven’t been so dissuaded from him by this — the writing is extremely good, it just falls down in construction. He’s even listed in Adey with a couple of impossible crime stories, which could be an interesting experience.

      I’m curious to see how his expansion of the genre plays out, but I’m not in a desperate rush to get to TBI. IN a few more months, perhaps; like yourself, I’ve plenty to read in the meantime.

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      • He’s even listed in Adey with a couple of impossible crime stories, which could be an interesting experience.

        Don’t expect too much. “As if by Magic” is a short short with a pretty basic, disappointing and underwhelming solution for an impossible disappearance from an amusement pier. And disliked it intensely. Symons was also a bit of a hypocrite when he wrote “As if by Magic,” because he has said that the locked room mystery ought to be banned from the genre. So the only real surprise is how the traditional the whole story was with an amateur detective who happened to be around when an impossible crime presented itself. So much for realism, I guess.

        PS.
        I hate Symons so much.

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        • he has said that the locked room mystery ought to be banned from the genre

          W-w-w-w-w-w-w-whaaaaaaaatt???!! Where are the pitchforks? Light the burning…things. We march on Castle Symons at midnight!

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          • March on Castle Symons? You mean, like, desecrating his grave site? I don’t think my hatred for Symons runs six feet deep, but I can appreciate the sentiment.

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  3. I read The Belting Inheritance near the beginning of the year and found it fine, just not anything amazing. I still haven’t gotten round to this but I have a copy and will get it read at some point.

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  4. 3/5 is a surprisingly good rating for you, as I wouldn’t have thought this was your sort of mystery at all. I enjoyed this one more than The Belting Inheritance, which should mean you’ll prefer them the other way round. At the very least TBI is more of a conventional mystery.

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    • I’m always pleased to see something approached in an uncommon way, and Symons writes superbly — I read this in about four blinks. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t know what he’s saying or what point he’s making. Divested of an intelligent idea at the centre of the plot — there’s no alibi, no misdirection, no linguistic cleverness, nothing of any consequence at all — it could do with some sort of drive or purpose behind it. Lacking that, it fails rather. Which is a shame, because I would have liked to like this more.

      Onwards to Belting!

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      • Well, Kate’s always been a bit more into her crime-fiction-adjacent Golden Age stuff. If anything, that’s more a testament to how damn good Till Death Do Us Part is — even people who wouldn’t normally go for that sort of thing love it.

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  5. Whether or not I’m falling out of love with detection… I don’t think he and I are going to start a love affair just yet.”

    Everything about this reeks of apostasy!

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    • Bleh, nonsense. Look, I’m even reviewing Freeman Wills Crofts’ debut next week. Who would casually step up to that challenge but the most dedicated detection fan?

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      • I’m curious to see how different The Cask is from The Sea Mystery. I’ve read that the setup of the crime is nearly identical, but I’m interested to see if the rest of the story plays out in a similar manner.

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        • I shall attempt to remember to address that in my review. If I don’t remember, or if I can’t find a way to work it in, be sure to ask me for a comparison in the comments.

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          • I wouldn’t call the premises of The Cask and The Sea Mystery nearly identical. The only thing they really have in common is that the bodies are found in a cask/crate, but in The Cask the victim was a woman, whose body was transported over the water, while the victim in The Sea Mystery is a man – dragged from the bottom of an inlet by two fishers. My impression is Crofts wanted to reuse the basic premise of The Cask and “mirrored” its setup in The Sea Mystery.

            And you could be dragging a red herring across the trail by reading The Cask.

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            • I’ll be starting it this weekend, so will bear that all in mind. Crofts went to such efforts to write something different each time, is my impression at the moment, that I’d be surprised if there’s too great an overlap.

              Expect updates if/when they happen.

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  6. Symons was ahead of the curve with his deconstructionist impulses. And what is deconstructionism, you ask. For someone who’s determined to revolutionize the mystery novel, to make it “transcend the genre,” deconstructionism is the perfect approach. Introduce all the traditional elements, just don’t let them work together. A lot like taking an automobile apart, putting the engine over there and the battery over here and never attaching the wheels to the chassis. From you review, that seems to be what Symons has done with THE COLOUR OF MURDER.

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    • But — to pick up your analogy — who wants a car where all the pieces are in the wrong place and nothing works? I understand that Symons may well have seen the mystery novel as becoming stale and predictable, but why then use so many of the elements of that stale form so poorly? That’s like making a meal with food you know is rotten — it’s going to taste bad no matter what you do with it (although these analogies are getting out of hand now…)

      Symons was no doubt a popular author, and I’m sure a lot of people love what he did, but I don’t see how what he did was constructive for the detective novel or the mystery plots based on this one example. I shall read Belting and maybe get a better idea then, but simple “deconstructionism” isn’t, I’m afraid, going to cover it…

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      • …but simple “deconstructionism” isn’t, I’m afraid, going to cover it…

        I agree. It’s vandalism.

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        • TomCat – If in THE COLOUR OF MURDER Symons was consciously trying to sabotage the traditional mystery (as he had reason to do when you consider his highly publicized opinions on the subject), then “vandalism” would be the perfect word for what he was doing. As JJ says, as a prose stylist Symons was first rate (and so was Raymond Chandler), but as mystery plotters they were both substandard. By the way, I think of “deconstructionism” as a safe and “respectable” way for academics to pick apart literature they don’t like.

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