The Colour of Murder (1957): Julian Symons

★★★

My next book in the British Library Crime Classics series takes an unusual approach to narrative. The first half is a first-person account, presented as a psychologist’s record of sessions held with the speaker, a young man named John Wilkins. About halfway through the book, we find out that there has been a murder – but it would be a spoiler to say, right now, who’s been killed, or who is the suspect. During the second half, we follow the action in court, watching prosecution and defence in action, we try to understand exactly what happened on the beach at Brighton that dark summer night, and whether the accused truly is guilty. As a murder mystery it isn’t entirely satisfying – there’s very little sense of catharsis to be had – but it’s fascinating as a social history. Reading it so soon after The Fortnight in September, I found myself drawing lots of parallels between the modest lives of the Stevens family in the 1930s and that of John Wilkins in the 1950s: a world of humble jobs, social striving, and frustration, which hasn’t changed as much in twenty years as you might expect. However, while the Stevens family ultimately find joy and hope in their lives, Wilkins feels consistently hard-done-by: a man whose search for self-fulfilment leads to a tragic outcome.

John Wilkins has an unremarkable life. He spent his youth in a big house in one of Clapham’s more salubrious roads, but after his spendthrift father’s death his mother has been forced to downsize. John himself has moved into a little flat just off the Common with his wife May, although they go to visit his mother for supper and card games every Wednesday evening. Wilkins works in the complaints department of Palings, an Oxford Street department store, where – like many other clerks in this day and age – he drudges his way up the company hierarchy, waiting for an opening on the next level. His frustrations at work are equalled by his annoyance at home. His initial hopes of a happy life with May have been dashed: since their marriage, he’s realised that she’s prim and self-conscious, caring deeply for outward appearances and desperate to climb further up the social ladder. By marrying Wilkins, she has left behind her own undesirable family; now she intends to advance them both again. For Wilkins, who doesn’t share May’s acute class-consciousness, her insistent networking is both petty and embarrassing:

She was a great one for having nice young couples in to play bridge and drink coffee and eat little sandwiches cut into shapes of hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds and watch TV. She was always on at me to ask Gimball and his wife to dinner, and used to say I had no idea of improving my social position.

Had the marriage been happy, Wilkins could probably have suffered such precious little parties, but the more you read, the unhappier you realise they are. Wilkins never misses an opportunity to point out how May has curtailed his life. When we first meet him, he no longer plays tennis (‘I had been a pretty good player, but I’d given it up when I got married because May didn’t like the game’) and has stopped his other sports too (‘I used to be a good runner, good at most games as a matter of fact, although I gave them up when I got married because May wasn’t interested’). Their sex life, it’s implied, is non-existent thanks to May’s excessive prurience (‘May did not like me to see her undressing’). Rather than the joyful partnership he imagined, Wilkins is stuck with a social-climbing wife, for whom he feels no love or empathy. To make matters worse, he has recently been experiencing blackouts, both at home and at work, often prompted by drinking, which are becoming increasingly difficult to conceal. But he won’t go to the doctor: what if they tell him that he’s ill? He’d really rather not know. And he can hide it for now. Can’t he?

And then an unexpected ray of light comes into this frustrated young man’s life. He meets Sylvia, a young woman who works at Clapham Library and for whom he feels an immediate sympathy. Sylvia, he feels sure, will understand him. He knows instinctively that life with her would be passionate and rewarding, and sets out to charm her – leaving aside the problem of May, whose presence is… regrettable. When Sylvia lets slip that she’s heading for a holiday in Brighton with her invalid father, Wilkins decides a trip to the seaside would be just the ticket for him and May. And, if his path should cross with Sylvia’s while he’s there…? A matter for destiny to arrange, surely?

Symons does a great job of creating (for the first half) a first-person narrator who is not only unreliable but, as time goes on, starts to sound positively unstable. In fact, unreliability is one of the underlying themes of the whole book. How much can we trust what Wilkins is telling us? How far does his perception align with reality? Can he trust his friends; his colleagues; his managers? When we go to court, can we trust those who testify on our behalf? What happens if we can’t remember what we’ve done at a crucial moment? And – a key question this, and an interesting one – can we trust the mechanisms invoked by experts to supposedly prove or disprove guilt? A section of the court case is devoted to the benzidine test, a forensic forerunner of the DNA test now commonly used in sexual assault and murder cases, and Symons has obviously studied the limitations of this test with great care, making for a dramatic moment of cross-examination. It’s all done well, but the problem for me – I suppose – was the join between the two halves of the book. Symons clearly enjoys writing the first-person account of Wilkins’s life; he also evidently enjoys the court procedural; but I’m not sure how much he really cares about the outcome. The end is not satisfying: a somewhat half-hearted epilogue tries to introduce, as a twist, a solution I came up with much earlier; and overall it gives the impression of loose ends left hanging.

An interesting book for its use of early forensic techniques, and for the attention paid to psychology, but not all that satisfying as a story. For me, the best aspect of The Colour of Murder is its evocation of the gossipy, social-climbing world of the lower middle-classes in the 1950s, when the way to get on was to join the right tennis club, or to be known to play bridge with people who have expensive cars, or to invite the boss to dinner – a rather down-at-heel, modest British version of Mad Men, I suppose. Like The Fortnight in September, it’s a glimpse of the world which formed our parents and grandparents, full of social rituals and concerns which have now (for the most part) vanished.

I have another of Symons’s novels, also published in the Crime Classics series: The Belting Inheritance. I read it a while ago but didn’t post on it at the time, and shall have to reread it to refresh my memory – but I remember enjoying it slightly more than The Colour of Murder. That’s probably because it’s a more traditional kind of mystery, made all the more interesting for being based on a notorious court case. More on that soon…

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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