Category Archives: Symons Julian

The Colour of Murder: Julian Symons (1957)

“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 colour of murder

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.

Oh dear.

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

Review copy

 

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Filed under Fiction, Symons Julian

Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries. ed. by Martin Edwards

“It’s the bloke who spends the night in the haunted chamber who always cops it in the neck.”

Crimson Snow, a collection of crime stories set around the Christmas season is a perfect companion read to Mystery in White. Short story collections are a wonderful way to ‘try out’ new authors, and in the case of Crimson Snow, I had a reunion with Margery Allingham and met some new (to me) interesting authors. And here’s the line-up:

The Ghost’s Touch: Fergus Hume

The Chopham Affair: Edgar Wallace

The Man with the Sack: Margery Allingham

Christmas Eve: S.C. Roberts

Death in December: Victor Gunn

Murder at Christmas: Christopher Bush

Off the Tiles: Ianthe Jerrold

Mr Cork’s Secret: Macdonald Hastings

The Santa Claus Club: Julian Symons

Deep and Crisp and Even: Michael Gilbert

The Carol Singers: Josephine Bell

Solution to Mr Cork’s Secret: (author’s solution and two winning entries)

I shan’t cover every story in the review, but will instead focus on some favourites. The collection itself presents a pleasant variety with private citizens, an unpaid PI, and a few policemen in the mix. While there’s a range of stories, I found myself really enjoying the blend of voices here.

crimson-snow

I’ve been meaning to read Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of the Hansom Cab for years, so I was delighted to read his short story, The Ghost’s Touch, in which the narrator, Doctor Lascalles is invited by an Australian friend, Frank Ringan to spend Christmas at the “family seat near Christchurch.” Frank, whose father made his fortune in the “gold-digging days”  is the wealthy member of the family, but the “head of the family” is Frank’s cousin impoverished Percy Ringan. Alarm bells ring in the mind of any self-respecting crime reader when we learn that the Ringan cousins have made their wills in each other’s favour.

Frank is extremely proud of the ancestral estate and “the position and antiquity of his family,” so he’s thrilled to spend a traditional English Christmas at the ancestral estate at Ringshaw Grange.

It was a wonderful old barrack of a place, with broad passages, twisting interminable like the labyrinth of Daedalus; small bedrooms furnished in an old-fashioned manner; and vast reception apartments with polished floors and painted ceilings. 

At Ringshaw Grange, however, things begin to go wrong when there’s an unexplained fire in Frank’s bedroom and he’s moved to the notorious haunted chamber, the Blue Room. …

Edgar Wallace’s The Chopham Affair was another pleasant surprise. In the introduction, Martin Edwards states that while “subtlety was not” Wallace’s strongest point, “his short stories have arguably stood the test of time.”  The Chopham Affair, a story of blackmail and murder, was excellent, and this is how it begins:

Lawyers who write books are not, as a rule, popular with their confrères, but Archibald Lenton, the most brilliant of prosecuting attorneys, was an exception.

Off the Tiles from Ianthe Jerrold is a short story with a twist as it ends not so much with a solution (which does occur) as with an observation on the unwavering consistency of human behaviour. The story is an investigation into the death of a woman who appears to have fallen off of her roof. Hostilities exist between the dead woman and her neighbours and the dead woman’s sister insists that murder has occurred.

The Man with the Sack from Margery Allingham was a delight. It’s a story in which we find poor Albert Campion roped into being an unpaid PI during a Christmas gathering which takes place at the home of some old friends. In The Santa Claus Club from Julian Symons, private investigator Francis Quarles is employed by the wealthy Lord Acrise who has been receiving threatening letters from a man who went to prison decades earlier. Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas is the story of a golfing holiday interrupted, most inconveniently, by a murder. Victor Gunn’s amusing Death in December features Chief Inspector Bill ‘Ironsides’ Cromwell who investigates a murder that takes place during the holidays at a castle. A dead body pops up and then everyone finds themselves snowed in….

“A fine place to bring me to for Christmas,” he said sourly. “Ghosts all over the place before we even get indoors!”

Crimson Snow, and what a apt title that is, is a most enjoyable read for the season.

Review copy

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Filed under Allingham Margery, Bush Christopher, Fiction, Gunn Victor, Hume Fergus, Jerrold Ianthe, Symons Julian, Wallace Edgar