When I wrote my January roundup post I included a note that I planned to review something by Julian Symons (I previously reviewed The Colour of Murder). Of course, back then I actually had little idea what that book would be until this morning when I picked a title at random on my way to work. While I’m no fan of spontaneity, that’s just the way I’ve been rolling lately.
As it happens it turned out that I had made a fortunate choice as The Man Who Killed Himself is an example of my favorite subgenre of crime fiction, the inverted mystery. This would be cause for excitement in itself but what added to my interest was that Symons’ story can be seen as an affectionate play on one of the classic titles in the genre, Malice Aforethought.
Arthur Brownjohn is an emasculated male, dominated by a wife who takes every opportunity to remind him that she comes from a higher social class and humiliate him in front of their friends during their weekly bridge games. His great passion is for inventing and yet he seems incapable of developing anything marketable or making a success of his engineering firm.
I do not wish to spoil the circumstances that lead Arthur to want to murder his wife or indeed of the broader elements of the plot. Symons’ story is built on several revelations, one of which occurs very early in the novel long before the murder, that transform our understanding of what is taking place and how the story is likely to develop. If you can remain unspoiled I would strongly encourage you to do so – the surprises are fun and Symons delivers them well.
Symons also provides us with another prominent male character in the form of Major Easonby Mellon, a former military man who now runs a somewhat seedy marriage agency in the city. He makes for a striking contrast with Arthur, being loudly and expensively dressed and exuding sexuality and confidence. Unlike Arthur he even seems to be happily married (although he has dalliances with other women). The two men could not be more different and yet while the men are quite dissimilar in personalities, they share a common purpose in bringing about Clare’s death.
Of the two men, Mellon is certainly the more colorful figure but both are interesting in their own ways and I enjoyed the strong contrast drawn between them. This not only entertains, I think it also throws a lot of light on the characters and their values and giving us a clearer sense of who they are.
Symons structures his novel in three distinct sections, each reflecting a different phase of the crime. The first part of the novel focuses on exploring the reasons that Arthur will decide that Clare should die. The second focuses on the execution of the plan while the last deals with the aftermath and attempts by the police to investigate.
This is a sound and pretty familiar formula for an inverted story but Symons paces his story well and incorporates enough unexpected developments to keep things feeling fresh and surprising. I have already referred to a significant development early in the book that caught me by surprise but there are plenty of other smaller moments later in the book that see the plot spin off in new directions. Most of these feel quite natural and fairly clued, making them all the more satisfying.
Similarly the plan developed for Clare’s death is hardly revolutionary, incorporating many familiar ideas and elements found in other inverted stories. Once again though Symons executes these ideas well, weaving them together into a story that is as psychologically interesting as it is entertaining.
While I think there are some elements of the premise related to Major Mellon that stretch credibility a little, there are entertaining and I was sufficiently amused that I was more than willing to accept them. It is only really in the final section of the book that I felt that some elements didn’t quite work, building towards an ending that was not quite as punchy or surprising as I suspect Symons intended it to be.
The problems begin in a sequence that takes place following a character’s visit to a gambling house. At that point an unlikely plot development happens that changes the trajectory of the story. This requires the reader to accept a coincidence that, while not outrageous, still feels heavily contrived to bring around a crisis. It is hard not to feel that we are being hurried along toward the ending and as a result the development feels highly artificial, sitting poorly with the more careful construction of the plot up until that point.
This development is not entirely bad however and it does at least open up an interesting possibility that Symons does take some advantage of. While I was glad that some of the potential of that idea is used, I think he had considerably more room to explore it and provide us with a much more unexpected ending than the one we get. Instead we get a perfectly serviceable conclusion but one that feels far less imaginative than the rest of the book.
While it may read like I was disappointed with this book, I do want to stress that I was thoroughly entertained right up to the end. Symons’ writing is quirky and witty while I found the central characters to be striking and interesting. The plot was quite inventive and often placed interesting spins on more traditional ideas and elements.
Though not entirely successful, The Man Who Killed Himself is nonetheless an entertaining and creative read as well as a very solid inverted crime story. I found it a breeze to read, completing it in just a couple of hours, and really enjoyed my time with it. Recommended.