Another month of me taking advantage of the wonderful resource that is the British Library to investigate stories from Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (1992) — and we begin with an author I was very eager to read further after recently encountering him for the first time: Mr. Julian Symons.
Symons’ The Colour of Murder (1957) sounds like a detective novel but turns out to be anything but; indeed, for all the time and care taken over proceedings it feels about as satisfying as one of those novels that are really short stories with a lot of padding to make up the word count. So the prospect of him having written some short stories, and some impossible crimes at that, intrigued me: if Symons doesn’t have the patience for detection over the long form — and he well might, perhaps that novel doesn’t show him off well — how’s his short game?
‘The Hiding Place’ is collected in the anthology Murder! Murder!: 21 Outstanding Stories from the Casebook of Frances Quarles (1961), a collection of stories that appear in the main to have been written for the Evening Standard — the first three collected here lasting between 20 and 40 pages of this A-format paperback, and so probably too long for newspaper inclusion unless serialised of seriously edited, and the remaining 18 running to no more than six. This particular story was reprinted — sometimes under the title ‘As If by Magic’ — in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in September 1963 in the US, January 1964 in the UK, and March 1964 in Australia, and so got some pretty good coverage in its lifetime.
Quarles, a naturally reticent man who Symons’ introduction tells us was “apparently educated abroad”, “spent some time in the Far East”, and “occasionally mentions his wartime activities”, now works as a private investigator and, one can only presume, is entangles in all manner of tidy schemes as a result. It seems slightly unfair to keep harking back to Edmund Crispin’s Beware of the Trains (1953) collection, and I’ve not really read enough of these Quarles stories to compare them meaningfully, so instead I’ll say that the simplicity of the couple I did read brought to mind the Leo Bruce stories, similarly published in the Evening Standard, collected in Murder in Miniature (1991) — possibly a little too simple to really tax the mind of anyone not merely after a distraction on a commute, as perhaps intended, but engaging enough, and very well written.
‘The Hiding Place’ concerns a murder taking place in a Bank Holiday crowd on Brightsand Pier (and try to convince me that Symons doesn’t have a thing for killing people in Brighton…): our “inoffensive-looking, supremely ordinary” murderer and the “dark bulky man sleeping in one of the deckchairs” who is to be his victim — Symons is very clear on the fact that their names do not matter — cross paths by chance, the former remembering his possession of a clasp knife and acting “almost without thought” and stabs the latter three times, throwing the knife into the sea in a “quite unpremeditated crime”. A woman witnesses the act, screams, and brings the police to the scene before our killer has a chance to escape…yet, search though they do for someone meeting the description, and with blood on their jacket to boot, there is no sign of the killer.
This story is three pages long. It’s important to know this, because in that space Symons shows a distinct inclination to play the detection game: either our killer changed his jacket — which is unlikely, since who would carry a spare? — or removed it — yet all six men without jackets on are “vouched for by friends or relatives”, or is still wearing it — but every man in a brown jacket is traced, his clothing examined and found to be free of blood. The oversight here is almost Chestertonian, a comparison no doubt encouraged by the opening line:
They say that a murder is most easily committed in a crowd, and that is the way it almost proved…