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.
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…