The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons – A court drama from the British Library Crime Classic series

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This book is another British Library Crime Classic reprint of a mystery unjustly neglected since its original publication in 1957. Like Symons other reprinted novel, “The Belting Inheritance”, it features an unreliable narrator whose evident confusion seems to be from a far more sinister motive than youth and naivety. It is a remarkable book, partly from its first section which is a first person profile of a character which may or may not explain the tragic events of the novel, and partly from its forensic narration of a court case in all its detail. This is not simply the story of a murder; it is far more about the characters involved before and after when a detailed examination of the case is shown. As Martin Edwards describes in his fine introduction, Symons also gives us plenty of social history in this volume, as the aspiring postwar generation join tennis clubs, host television parties and reveal their real motivations. I was really grateful to receive an advanced copy of this book.

John Wilkins is an unhappy young man. He reveals this in the first part of this book, which is in the form of an extended statement to a psychiatrist. After his father’s business failure and secret affairs are revealed to John, his mother is forced to take a smaller house in a less desirable location. However, John’s former address has been enough to attract the interest of May, who persuades him into a loveless marriage. Her social aspirations come to dominate their lives, and her intense dislike of John’s mother regularly surfaces. John is in a miserable job, with a boss who seems eager to pick up any mistakes, and who is unwilling to give John any credit.  John becomes somewhat unstable, enduring blackouts whenever he drinks, and developing an obsession with a young woman, Sheila. As he fantasises about their relationship, he begins to lose his grip on events even when they favour him. The confusion increases with John seemingly unable to understand or explain what is truly going on, as he misreads situations on a daily basis. A tragic discovery propels everyone connected with him however tenuously into the spotlight of a trial, where the expert work of lawyers is contrasted with those who claim to have knowledge of the events leading up to and during one tragic night.

This is such a clever book in its establishment of a character and those around him being pitched into a complex situation. Symons manages to get so much contrast between the characters, especially the women, that it shows that this is a new type of Murder Mystery in which the characters drive the plot, in contrast with the rather more stock characters of the interwar novels (with some honourable exceptions, obviously). I enjoyed the way in which it keeps the reader guessing, with every character seemingly having mixed motives and behaving in such realistic ways, from the small details of their speech to their larger choices in life. I recommend this book not as a great dramatic murder mystery, but as a carefully wrought observation of life and times, a powerful picture of a man on the edge.

A quick check shows that October’s British Library Crime Classic book looks forward to Christmas! Meanwhile we are still enjoying late summer/ early autumn hereabouts. The darker evenings are a good time to read though! We are having our big book sale in the church hall soon, hundreds of books at a ridiculously cheap prices. This time it is in aid of Book Aid, which buys new books for those who cannot afford them in various countries. I am no expert on the charity, but it seems a good idea to buy medical books, school textbooks and other vital books that do not need electricity or technology to read. I can see I’m going to have to do some more research on this…

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