The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons
Originally Published 1957
John Wilkins meets a beautiful, irresistible girl, and his world is turned upside down. Looking at his wife, and thinking of the girl, everything turns red before his eyes—the colour of murder.
But did he really commit the heinous crime he was accused of? Told innovatively in two parts: the psychiatric assessment of Wilkins and the trial for suspected murder on the Brighton seafront, Symons’ award-winning mystery tantalizes the reader with glimpses of the elusive truth and makes a daring exploration of the nature of justice itself.
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.