“What can you say about a marriage? You peel off the years, seven of them there had been, like the skin off an onion, and there’s nothing inside.”
John Wilkins is, at least on the surface, an ordinary sort of man. He isn’t a great achiever, and following the collapse of the family business (and the family fortunes), he takes a job with Palings, a large Oxford Street store. Eventually, he climbs the ladder and becomes assistant manager of the Complaints Department. His lacklustre, passionless marriage to May is stale. She’s a social climber who married John thinking he had more potential (and money) but now they are stuck in a rut. To the joyless May, some people are “worth cultivating,” and so the couple’s social life, organised by May, is built on “little dinner parties or bridge parties or television parties.”
And then one day, John meets Sheila, a librarian. …
The book’s first section is mostly composed of a lengthy statement from John Wilkins to consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Max Andreadis (along with a couple of letters). John opens up to Dr. Andreadis, telling him things he’s told no one else. Following bouts of drinking, John has blackouts, and wakes up with no memory of his actions. Plus then there are hints of a troubled sex life:
I found out something else too, and this was about myself, I had always been I suppose what you might say an innocent young man. I had never thought much about girls, and as I’ve said I had not been successful with them, so that although I knew what to do, I was inexperienced. What you have never had you don’t miss, they say. I don’t know about that, but I do know that now I had May I wanted her. What was more, even in that first week I became aware that I wanted her in special ways and wanted her to do certain things, usual perhaps.
John’s statement allows us to see into his mind. On one hand he seems like a very ordinary man, unsatisfied with life and marriage, but lacking the energy to do anything about it. At the same time there are troubling hints that he may be a little unbalanced. Yes, the blackouts, of course, but then there’s a stint from the army in his past along with the complaint that “people who hadn’t got a quarter of my intelligence and enthusiasm got one stripe and even two stripes up while I remained a trooper.” Does John have a realistic image of himself? On a couple of occasions, he’s “gone out for lunch, had a couple of drinks, and apparently not returned [to work] in the afternoon.” John seems more concerned that his boss doesn’t believe his story about blackouts than the fact that he’s boozing at lunch until he sinks into oblivion. This latter behaviour doesn’t seem to worry him at all!
John’s life begins to go out-of-control after meeting Sheila. He makes a complete idiot of himself on several occasions, but again, the interview reveals that John is not dealing with reality. Soon he’s fascinated by a murder case in which a man beat his wife to death, and then John hints at divorce to May. When she won’t take the hint, he asks his Uncle Dan the best way to murder someone. Hypothetically, of course.
The book’s second section concerns, yes, you’ve got it, a murder trial. But who has been murdered is The Big Question. As Martin Edwards points out in his lively introduction, The Colour of Murder is a “whowasdunnin.” As the plot, full of colourful characters, progresses in the book’s second section, we eliminate possible victims, and then the book concentrates on the court case. There’s a brassy prostitute, a mild-mannered, humble private investigator, a father who relishes the court case, surreptitiously smuggling custard cream biscuits into the courtroom, and a solicitor who picks his nose. Then finally, there’s John Wilkins, a man whose reflection seems from a shattered mirror. You can’t really tell what is there, how dangerous he is. ….
As noted in a recent read from Julian Symons, The Belting Inheritance, we’ve read this sort of plot before, but the delight emerges in how Symons tells his tale. Symons really is a first class storyteller.