The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

ColourofMurder
The Colour of Murder
Julian Symons
Originally Published 1957

Julian Symons is a writer whose name was known to me more in connection with his literary criticism than in terms of his own creative writing. This is in spite of this novel’s reputation with it not only winning the highest award from the Crime Writers’ Association in 1957 but also being included on their Top 100 list in 1990. Happily the book’s imminent rerelease gave me an opportunity to acquaint myself with his work.

The Colour of Murder opens with a story being related by John Wilkins to a psychiatrist. The circumstances of this are not immediately apparent but as the reader progresses in the narrative it will become clearer where the story appears to be headed.

John Wilkins works in the Complaints department of a Department Store where he has proved himself competent but has yet to achieve the recognition he wishes for. His relationship with his wife is cold and stale with neither of them really getting what they want from it. His life is turned upside down however when he meets a young woman who works in the library and flirts with her, impulsively deciding to tell her that he is single.

As he recounts what happened and his reasons for ending up in a seaside hotel the reader will have a strong sense that this is not a simple psychiatric consultation but an evaluation. By the end of the first part of the novel Wilkins will find himself accused of murder in circumstances that make him look guilty although this first section stops short of telling us exactly what occurred.

There are a few reasons for this abrupt cut in the story but one of them is that the second part of the story shifts style to become more of a legal drama. Wilkins’ mother and uncle consult a solicitor and hire a detective agency to investigate what happened to attempt to find evidence of his innocence. We as readers cannot be entirely sure whether he is innocent or not and so we are forced to make our own judgments based on our interpretations of what he has told his psychiatrist and the evidence given during the trial.

The transition between the two styles of narrative works very effectively and prompts the reader to make their own psychological evaluation. While this book certainly belongs to the psychological crime tradition rather than the puzzle mystery approach, the reader is capable of making several inferences that should help them get to the truth of what happened. The answer is confirmed to the reader in a short third section at the end of the novel which, while hardly shocking, is very competently delivered.

The chief strength of the novel lies in its very effective characterization. Kate in her excellent review suggests that this novel is a descendent of Malice Aforethought and I think this is most clearly seen in the characterization of John Wilkins. Both he and Dr. Bickleigh are moderately successful but appear to be stagnating professionally, sexually frustrated (though Wilkins is much less forward with women) and see their spouse as an obstacle to a new relationship. In each case they are dominated and arguably emasculated by their wives and indulge in an element of fantasy in their idle moments.

There are however some important differences and distinctions between the two characters that make it clear that this is something new. Where Bickleigh is cold and plans a murder in advance (and in a very cruel way), Wilkins is notable for his questionable mental stability. We may well wonder, much as his barrister does, whether he may have a cause to plea insanity and certainly the crime that is committed does not seem to have been premeditated.

As I read I couldn’t help but think that Wilkins is a man who grew up at precisely the wrong time for someone of his temperament. He belongs to the younger generation and yet his values are distinctly those of the pre-war generation. He is discontent with fifties domesticity and yet even if he were cut free of those obligations it is hard to imagine him successfully engaging with the type of woman he desires. He is too awkward and insular to ever be comfortable socially.

Wilkins’ wife is an intriguing character in that while she is shown to be domineering and unaffectionate, Symons takes the time to give us the information we need to understand her better, leaving the reader to connect the dots. She is certainly a materialistic figure, valuing a quality of life that she feels envious that others were able to enjoy, and yet there are moments where she does appear to actually want her marriage to be warmer and more affectionate. She quarrels with John’s mother and yet it is clear that she wants to be accepted. She is an interesting, complicated creation and while her psychology is not the focus of the novel, I appreciate that she is treated with more complexity than you might assume from her introduction.

Sheila, the young librarian who becomes the object of John’s affections, makes a similarly straightforward first impression but as she features less directly in the novel I think she does not quite possess the same depth of characterization. I did enjoy the process of figuring out how she felt about him and the glimpses of her life and circle of friends.

The court case itself is one of the highlights of the novel and features some very exciting moments. Symons is able to avoid repeating ideas or phrases and to keep the action moving quickly. We are left to wonder what the outcome of the case will be, particularly following several very dramatic revelations, and I think the ending of the second section and the third have a certain power.

Overall my first taste of Julian Symons’ work was very positive. He is able to make a potentially rather unpleasant lead character compelling and convincing while injecting his story with a surprising amount of wit. I would certainly suggest this to fans of the more psychological approach to crime fiction advanced in novels by Iles and Rendell.

No doubt I will get around to reading The Belting Inheritance, the other Symons novel being republished by the British Library, soon and I can imagine dipping into some of his other works. If you have read any of Symons’ work, do you have any favorites you would recommend?

Review copy provided by the publisher. The British Library Crime Classics edition will be published in Britain and America on February 5, 2019.

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

MurderofMyAunt
The Murder of My Aunt
Richard Hull
Originally Published 1934

The Murder of My Aunt is a story in the inverted style, told from the perspective of a young man who is plotting to kill the aunt who he must live with in order to receive an allowance that he regards as pitifully small. It is an overtly comedic tale and, in talking about it with friends, I have likened it to imagining a less imaginative, more feckless Bertie Wooster trying to off his Aunt Agatha without any assistance from Jeeves.

It should be said that not only is this not a conventional mystery novel, it isn’t even really a conventional inverted story either as almost all of the action takes place prior to the murder taking place. There is no period of reflection, no telltale conscience or worrying about clues left at the scene. Instead this is a journal-style report of the development of the protagonist’s plans as they try to find a scheme that will work.

The first few chapters are the best in the whole book as we get to know that protagonist and see how his resentment towards his aunt has built and the manner of their interactions with each other. The incident that sparks it all is his Aunt insisting that Edward take a stroll into the village to pick up a parcel of the French novels he orders that she thoroughly disapproves of. He wishes to avoid the exercise but everything he thinks to try she has already prepared for. It is tremendously enjoyable opening to the novel and features some of the best comical writing I have ever encountered.

It is in the aftermath of that event that we see Edward come to the decision that his aunt must die and he begins to scheme ways to make that happen. There are still a number of very funny moments and sequences in these sections of the book as the battle of wits continues and the reader might be forgiven for wondering if the titular murder will ever take place. Don’t worry, it will and when we finally get to that moment the reader ought to be prepared to work out precisely how it will be managed based on the hints dropped throughout the rest of the novel.

Both Edward and his Aunt Mildred are glorious creations and come to vivid life on the page. Certainly their antagonistic relationship feels believable and like one that may have developed over a lifetime of growing up in close proximity to someone you don’t particularly like or respect.

Edward is idle, insolent and believes that he is entitled to live a life of leisure and comfort at his aunt’s expense. He begrudges having to live in the country where he lacks diversions, and lavishes what little attention he possesses upon his French novels, his Pekinese dog So-So and his fashionable roadster La Joyeuse. He is not unintelligent but does not apply himself to anything which will be one of the challenges he will struggle to overcome in organizing an effective murder plot.

Meanwhile his Aunt Mildred is domineering and wishes to mold her nephew into her image of a fit young man to be the future of their old family name. Even keeping in mind that this narrative is told from the perspective of a man who feels vindictively toward her, she is someone it would be hard to like and the reader may well question whether there might have been a better approach she might have taken in managing her wayward charge.

The secondary characters are much less vividly drawn and occupy only very limited roles in Edward’s narrative, reflecting his narrow view of events, though they do play significant roles in parts of the plot. Hull’s writing style is engaging and even though it becomes clear where things will be headed by the midpoint of the novel, I felt the novel lost little of its interest.

Unfortunately I think there is little more I can say about this novel without running the risk of spoiling the experience. I am extremely glad I read it and have already sought out some other books by Hull that I plan on reading over the next few months. What I can say is that this is an excellent, if unconventional entry in the British Library Crime Classics collection and well worth checking out if you like darkly humorous stories or the inverted mystery form. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Crime involved fire/arson (How) – A bit of a cheat here but there is an incident of arson within the narrative.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Death Makes A Prophet by John Bude

Prophet
Death Makes a Prophet
John Bude
Originally Published 1947
Superintendent Meredith #11
Preceded by Death in Ambush
Followed by Dangerous Sunlight

My first experience of John Bude was The Cheltenham Square Murder (one of the earliest reviews on this blog) and while I found some aspects of the investigation interesting, I felt that it suffered from having to sustain its far-fetched premise. I did like the characterization and I appreciated the mechanics of Meredith’s investigation.

Death Makes A Prophet plays to some of the strengths I observed in that novel but, because its structure is quite different it avoids a few of the pitfalls. In fact as the crime only takes place between pages 148 and 149 around half of the book is setting the scene, establishing character relationships and some of the points of interest that will flummox Meredith later on.

The story concerns a religious cult, the Children of Osiris, that was established by Eustace Mildmann. After a few years of moderate success, Eustace suddenly found his order swelling when it received the patronage of a wealthy and eccentric aristocrat, Mrs Hagge-Smith. He soon found though that with the money came interference and increasing demands on his time. A deputy Prophet-in-Waiting, Mr. Penpeti, has been appointed and is gaining increasing influence within the order to the disgust of some Eustace-supporters. The tensions are palpable and will soon increase due to some external influences on the group and as a consequence of some decisions the characters will make.

In this climate a murder seems inevitable and yet throughout much of the first half of the novel it is not entirely clear who the victim will be as there clearly are schemes and counter-schemes taking place. Even once the crime does take place, for reasons I won’t spoil, it is not entirely clear who may have been murdered or whether a body was in fact murdered at all. Inspector Meredith has a tough case on his hands, working to disentangle the leads through diligent, thorough detection.

With the murder taking place at the midpoint of the novel, the investigation is somewhat compressed but that does not mean that the case or solutions to the smaller questions that occur along the way are simpler. In fact this case features a few particularly clever questions and puzzles for the reader and detective to consider. My favorite of these concerns some glassware found in a room and was brilliantly simple and logical but there are some other excellent candidates to pick from.

In addition to the murder mystery, the novel is laced with satirical and observational humor and some wonderfully rich characterization. Mixing comedy and murder is always risky business as personal tastes vary so much on the question of what is funny and jokes can sometimes undermine the development of a good mystery. Happily here that is not the case as the humor is in sympathy with rather than working against the development of the plot.

Much of the humor is derived from its character studies. Some, such as Mrs. Hagge-Smith, enjoy flexing their influence and using their money and power to remake the group in their image. Others, such as Eustace’s son, have been dragged into membership of the cult and take pleasure in secretly disobeying some of its tenets. These characters are well observed and will be recognizable to most readers as types, regardless of whether they have spent much time around small religious groups.

The only character who I felt was not particularly successful was Miss Minnybell, a character who we learn is instantly suspicious of Mr. Penpeti because she believe him to be the same Turkish servant who assaulted her in her youth. While she is quite a minor figure, the few appearances she does make seem to do little to advance the mystery. At the same time, she is not in the book often enough to be credible as a suspect in its second half.

This is a rare misstep though and it does at least help to flesh out the organization a little, creating a sense of life beyond the small circle of characters who will fall under suspicion. Other characters are richer, possessing secrets and while I quickly settled on the guilty party, I felt that there were some original ideas both in how the crime was committed and the circumstances that made for compelling reading even once you have worked out the solution.

I never lost interest and devoured this book in a single session. There are some very clever and entertaining ideas at play here and while not perfect, I found this to be a very satisfying read. Like Puzzle Doctor, I felt that this is manages to be funny and mysterious at the same time and I would also highly recommend it as another highlight in the British Library Crime Classics range.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Pseudonymous Author (What)

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

QuickCurtain
Quick Curtain
Alan Melville
Originally Published 1934

Death of Anton was one of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog and I gave it a glowing review. I was excited at the news that Quick Curtain would be released this month and the moment my copy arrived I set all my other books aside in favor of it.

The book begins at the opening night of a lavishly produced musical spectacular that a Scotland Yard detective and his journalist son happen to be attending. The play seems to be going well until a pivotal scene in which a character is supposed to be shot. The stage death turns out to be all too real and the play must be halted. Before he can be questioned the actor who fired the shot is discovered dead in his dressing room, apparently from suicide.

The initial assumption is that J. Hillary Foster shot Brandon Baker either deliberately or unwittingly, and then in a fit of remorse took his own life. Inspector Wilson takes a different view, suspecting foul play, and works with his son Derek to try to solve the case.

The first thing to say is that, to an even greater extent than with Death of AntonQuick Curtain is written as an out-and-out comedy. Though it may adhere to the general structure of a detective story, the author’s primary purpose and source of amusement is in its satirical commentary on the theatrical and show business communities rather than constructing a clever crime and challenging the reader to solve it.

So, is it funny?

Obviously taste in comedy is very subjective and so I will dodge the question a little by saying that this is exactly the sort of material that will delight some readers while infuriating others. I personally fall into the earlier category, being rather partial to theatrical satire and there are certainly plenty of jabs made at producers, actors, landladies at theatrical digs and reviewers. Fans of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris will likely be in heaven as will anyone who enjoys irreverent banter in an interwar style.

The most successful material seems to fall in the first half of the book as Melville often throws in amusing character details and commentary in the process of introducing characters. I particularly enjoyed the outline he gives us of the career of the show’s producer, Mr. Douglas B. Douglas who is something of a master publicist and the introduction of the reviewer who pens his reviews before actually seeing the production.

As entertaining as some of the comedic commentary can be though, there were times where I found myself wishing that the jokes were being made in service of the mystery itself. Often these asides seem to interrupt the story, a problem that becomes more frustrating as the story develops.

The lack of focus on developing the mystery and the investigation means that the case feels bland and underdeveloped. I felt that this was a deliberate choice on Melville’s part, especially in light of its ending, but I did not find it a particularly satisfying one. Some key developments seem to happen in spite of the actions of the main characters rather than resulting from their efforts and there is frustratingly little in the way of actual detection taking place.

The father and son detective pairing are irreverent, continually riffing comically on the situations in which they find themselves. This dialogue can be amusing and clever but it causes issues of balance within the novel because it seems to minimize the importance of the investigation. Two years later in Death of Anton, Melville found a stronger approach by having his hero, Mr. Minto, take his investigation seriously in spite of some farcical events taking place around him. That provided a welcome contrast between comedy and mystery elements – here the former absolutely subsumes the latter.

The reader’s satisfaction therefore is likely going to come down to the manner in which they approach the novel. Those who come at it expecting something lighthearted and diverting are more likely to put it down satisfied than those hoping for a good puzzle mystery. Though the observations on aspects of theatrical life will leave some cold, I personally found them to be very enjoyable and felt that these observations and the quality of the theatrical satire was of a very high standard.

Unfortunately I cannot issue an enthusiastic recommendation in the manner I did for Death of Anton but nonetheless I did find the book to be an entertaining read and think it is worth a look for fans of comedic adventure stories. I am still looking forward to when Weekend at Thrackley, another Melville story, gets released as part of the British Library Crime Classics range next year and I hope that I will be more impressed with that effort.

Death of Anton by Alan Melville

death-of-anton-v2.indd
Death of Anton
Alan Melville
Originally Published 1936

I was impatient.

Death of Anton, a crime story originally published in 1936, was released as part of the British Library Crime Classics range in Britain over two years ago and it instantly caught my eye with its charming cover and intriguing description. I had waited patiently to be able to buy it but after two years I had given up hope that Poisoned Pen Press would be releasing it Stateside. I did however notice that it had been available for some time on Audible and decided that I was fed up of waiting. In fairly typical fashion I learned the next day that it would be released here this December.

As it happens I have no regrets. The book is a delight and one of the most enjoyable I have read in this range to date. For those who care about such things, I would add that the audiobook version is very well performed and that the narrator has an excellent handle on how to deliver the author’s witty prose.

Inspector Minto is a detective from Scotland Yard but when we first encounter him he is staying in a hotel in the hopes of dissuading his sister from marrying a man his brother deems unsuitable. Over breakfast he meets a clown who performs at a circus that is beginning a week’s run nearby and who, after hinting at some illegal intrigue taking place there, invites Minto (and guests) to a party he is giving after the evening’s performance.

Some time after dinner however as the party begins to die down the body of Anton, a tiger tamer, is found having seemingly been attacked by his own beasts. Minto becomes suspicious that this is not the simple accident it appears to be and begins his investigation.

I want to leave my description of the plot there because part of the fun of what follows is the way the story evolves as Minto tries to piece things together. There is one further development that I must reference however because it is one of the most distinctive elements of this story.

The brother of Mr. Minto is the priest at a nearby Catholic church and, following the murder, the person responsible goes to him and confesses to the murder. That details of that discussion cannot be divulged as they are under the confessional seal and so we have a character who is aware of the identity of the murderer and yet cannot knowingly provide any details to aid his brother’s investigation. This device works pretty well here as it means we have a character who can ultimately confirm the identity of the killer at the end of the story. It also provides an entertaining source of frustration for our detective at several points in the investigation.

Melville finds ways to frustrate his detective throughout the novel which I found quite delightful. Minto of Scotland Yard is often a competent detective and yet he is far from a brilliant one. At several points in the narrative he makes crucial mistakes or incorrect assumptions and yet he is also shown to be quite methodical and diligent in the way he approaches working on his leads and theories.

The circus setting is every bit as colorful and lively as you might expect and provides us with a collection of larger-than-life characters to suspect and enjoy. Their rivalries are another constant source of comedy throughout the book and some of their personalities are very amusingly observed.

Having focused on my comments on how amusing and colorful the book is, I think I should end by reflecting on the crime itself and its solution. Although the plot twists on several occasions and gives us some very memorable developments, the eventual solution is fairly straightforward and I found it to be the least interesting part of the book. Happily Melville figures out a way to work some laughter into the conclusion to keep his tone consistent while also providing some resolution but I suspect few readers will be wowed by Minto’s deductions.

Generally the solution to what is going on makes sense though I do believe there is a point in the story where Minto presumes something that he did not have evidence for at that moment. I didn’t feel cheated because I think that by the time that assumption becomes important the reader would have reached a similar conclusion by themselves and I don’t think it affects the outcome of the investigation at all and overall I would say Melville plays fair in the ways that matter.

Death of Anton is yet another triumph for one of my favorite ranges of mystery titles and is certainly an unusual and entertaining read. It is remarkable how effectively Melville makes a story that possesses several potentially dark moments feel light and whimsical in tone. It is Highly Recommended.

Availability Note: Death of Anton will be released in North America on December 5, 2017 and is already available on audio.

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

Cheltenham
The Cheltenham Square Murder
John Bude
Originally Published: 1937
Superintendent Meredith #3
Preceded by The Sussex Downs Murder

I suspect that many mystery fans have a favorite range or publisher whose output they tend to be drawn to. For me it’s the British Library Crime Classics range which is published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press which reprints detective fiction from crime fiction’s Golden Age.

I have not only discovered a number of great reads through this range, I can also credit the books for causing me to go beyond Christie and Sayers and to see that crime fiction from this period is far more diverse than I had realized.

Unfortunately The Cheltenham Square Murder does not sit among the best of their output although it is quite a solid, entertaining read. It does contain a rather wonderful story hook, improbable though it is, which does at least make it quite a memorable murder even if its investigation disappoints.

The far-fetched concept of the story is that the murder victim lives in a cul-de-sac where several of the residents are all expert archers. One evening the victim is sitting in an armchair in front of a window having tea when he is killed with an arrow to the back of the head. The shot would have been an exceptionally hard one yet because so many of the residents were familiar with a bow there are a number of suspects on hand.

Meanwhile, and here we hit remarkable coincidence number two, our series sleuth (Inspector Meredith) just happens to be staying on holiday in a house on the street with a crime writer friend and he cannot resist assisting with the investigation.

In the early stages of the novel I found the investigation to be quite interesting, not least because of the unusual method of dispatch. There is a little discussion about flight trajectories and arrow types which lead to questions about precisely where the shot could have been fired from and there is a strong focus on the different suspects movements around the neighborhood.

The second half of the novel began to flag for me and I became frustrated that there were some parts of the narrative that struck me as a little flabby. For instance, there is one plot point in particular early in the story that the writer devotes a fair amount of time to that leads absolutely nowhere at all. There are other elements that are more substantive but which advance the investigation so quickly that the detective (or the reader) didn’t seem to earn the revelations that come from them.

Given that Meredith is quite a plodding sort of detective and the way the narrative slows in the final eighty pages, there is a very good chance that the reader will overtake him at points in the story and will beat him to solving the crime. Usually when I do this I feel a huge sense of accomplishment but here I felt a little underwhelmed.

There are several clues that so directly point to the identity of the suspect that the question only becomes one of how the crime was managed. While the means is at least rather clever and certainly unique, the reader comes to elements of it by default. Had the pacing of the conclusion been a little faster this may have been less apparent but I felt the solution required little ingenuity on the part of the reader – just a diligence and orderly removal of other possibilities.

If the mechanics of the investigation disappoint, the reader can at least enjoy the cast of characters that Bude creates for his story. The suspects are all quite unique and several of them have some interesting motives and behaviors that help bring them to life. Sadly, our investigator, Meredith, is much less of a personality and I found him of relatively little interest though it was interesting to see his investigation floundering at points as he hits several dead ends.

So, how did I feel about The Cheltenham Square Murder? I think it has some flashes of personality but it ends up being undone by the very unique concept that attracted me to it in the first place. When a murder requires a large amount of skill to be worked, it requires the reader to suspend a considerable amount of disbelief to accept that there might have been a broad array of suspects. As for how it is done, we have to have the means offered to us in advance so that the ending feels fair but the moment that means is introduced it stands out so much that it becomes clear that was how it was achieved.

This is a shame because there certainly were aspects of this book I enjoyed a lot and I found much of the book quite readable and entertaining. While I am open to reading some other works by Bude in the future, it will not be to spend more time with Meredith but in the hopes of seeing some other similarly creative scenarios.

Do you have a recommendation for another book in the Meredith series I might enjoy more?