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…
…but in order to observe the precise workings, and which of those option above the killer used, there’s perhaps a little more specialist information required. And, given the good reasoning behind tracking the man down, one has to wonder why our killer didn’t simply drop his jacket on the floor when given the chance…surely in the confusion he could get away with it, and it would be another confounding aspect to the whole shebang: once we know he’s not in his, er, Murder Jacket, what can he be wearing, since he’s not one of the six jacketless men? It’s easy to be disparaging, I suppose, especially as the conditions for which this story were written are not those of a ‘normal’ short story — had it’s original appearance not been in a newspaper, one feels criticism would be more readily borne. As it is, we can criticise this for its failings, but there’s also a sort of neatness to it even if it does feel once again as if Symons is deliberately ducking out of actually confronting the detective plot.
‘The Invisible Poison’ isn’t listed in Adey, but with a title like that I had to check it out, and it qualifies on the following grounds: wealthy hypochondriac Jasper Benton suspects that his nephew Roger is poisoning him since every time Roger visits he, Benton, is struck down with horrendous sickness in the night. Quarles is called in to examine matters and, interestingly, finds that Roger is the only one who acknowledges anything suspicious: Benton’s ward Dora Freeling, his brother James, even his doctor are all indisposed to consider the matter important for their own reasons. Be it Benton’s inability to taste anything that hasn’t had the life fried out of it due to an unspecified injury, or his voracious appetite and the gluttonous nature of his eating habits, everyone else sees any reason for concern, even Doctor Rossley likening them to nothing more severe than an upset stomach.
So, Quarles visits Benton’s house, interviews everyone so that they know what he’s there for, witnesses the spectacle that is Jasper Benton in full flight during mealtimes, and eats and drinks everything his host does. Sure enough, Jasper is sick in the night and Quarles is not, and the blame is soon laid at the door of the appropriate cause and person. But once again, Symons is reaching for an easy out: given that the household are aware of Quarles’ intent, would the scheme not be delayed just this once? Again, it feels like Symons has an easy answer to hand because this is written for the undiscerning mind, and this is why those Sergeant Beef tales of Bruce compare so readily: just as they don’t show Bruce at his best, it’s difficult to judge just how much Symons is actually trying here…and how much he accepted this commission because he knew he wouldn’t have to try too hard.
It’s early days for me and Symons, of course, but in being unable to settle this question in my mind the man and his work grow only more fascinating. The simplicity with which he sees the convoluted nature of criminal plots in these shorter tails speaks of a man who has an interest in the sort of psychology that betokened the early Silver Age writers who, as I was moved to say recently, seemed keen to deny all the foundations laid down in the Golden Age and just sort of start again in order to not make life too difficult for themselves. Equally, The Colour of Murder seemed to delight in the contradictions inherent in Golden Age detective fiction, but resolved all of them by simply not providing an answer one way or another — the blood makes no sense, the timings make no sense, the motive makes no sense…yeah, tough, innit? In these ways, he should infuriate me.
“U ok, hun?”
And yet, at the same time, I feel a sort of incipient fascination with someone who would go to such lengths to work inside a genre and yet avoid its expectations at every opportunity. Now, sure, I’m only one novel and two short stories deep, and maybe the selection appears more telling than it really is, but while I can’t say I necessarily like what I feel Symons is doing, I find it difficult to look away. Expect more developments as we get them…