The Man Who Killed Himself by Julian Symons

The Man Who Killed Himself
Julian Symons
Originally Published 1969

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.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

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The Christmas Card Crime and 
Other Stories
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2018

I may have mentioned this before but I am terrible when it comes to adhering to schedules. For this reason my week of Christmassy reads is beginning with less than a week to go.

Whoops.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories is the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of seasonal short stories. Last year I reviewed Crimson Snow which I found to be an entertaining and varied collection of stories, albeit one that was a little inconsistent in terms of quality. I am happy to report that I found this to be an even more satisfying collection.

There were a lot of things for me to love about this collection, not least that it features so many authors that are new to me and who write in a variety of styles. There are several inverted stories, a heist tale, an impossible crime or two as well as some more traditional detective stories. It is a good mix of stories!

Some of my favorites from the collection include Selwyn Jepson’s By The Sword which is a clever, dark story with a fun kick and Cyril Hare’s Sister Bessie which manages to go even darker. I also really enjoyed the title story for the collection The Christmas Card Crime which packs a considerable amount of incident into a small number of pages.

The disappointments here are few. Usually if a story doesn’t work for me it is because of their length – there are several which are just a few pages long. The only two that I think failed were Lorac’s A Bit of Wire Pulling and Carr’s Blind Man’s Hood which I just couldn’t get into. In the case of the latter there is an argument to be made that my expectations may simply have been too high.

Overall I considered this collection to be a delight and had a wonderful time reading it. The book feels really well balanced and there are several stories in the collection that I can imagine returning to when the season rolls around again. I consider this to be one of the best anthologies the British Library have published to date and highly recommend it.

Continue reading “The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards”

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.

Crimson Snow, ed. Martin Edwards

Crimson
Crimson Snow
Edited by Martin Edwards
Collected 2016

Having mentioned last week that I can struggle to enjoy short mystery fiction, was I asking for trouble by picking up one of the British Library Crime Classics compilations? Perhaps, though given one of the most iconic Christmas mystery stories is barely twenty pages long I think this is exactly the sort of thing I need to be reading.

This collection is edited by Martin Edwards and comprises eleven stories. One of those stories, Mr. Cork’s Secret, is split within the book to mirror how it was originally published – with the mystery published inviting readers to send in solutions and the answer following some time later.

There is a short introductory essay and then each story is prefaced with a brief biographical note about the writer placing that work in context. This is not only useful background for the work, it also gave me a few suggestions for other books that may be of interest by some of the contributing authors.

Overall, I felt that the standard of story in this collection was very high and it begins on a high note with Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch. This is an entertaining story which is narrated by a Doctor who has been invited to a country home to stay for Christmas. The owner of the house has also invited his Australian cousin to visit and regales them with the story of how the Blue Room became haunted and how those who stay there and wake up marked with a red touch die shortly afterwards. The reader will naturally wonder if events will repeat themselves?

Admittedly the solution to Hume’s story will be fairly obvious but I felt that this was a great example of how a simple idea, told well can be very effective.

The second story, Edgar Wallace’s The Chopham Affair, was my least favorite of the collection. It involves a blackmailer being discovered dead in a car next to a car thief. Fortunately it is followed by Margery Allingham’s The Man with the Sack which sees Mr. Campion interrupting a rather unusual crime during a Christmas party. It all makes for a fun adventure.

S. C. Roberts’ Christmas Eve immediately stands out as it is formatted as a stage play. The piece is a rather fun Holmes pastiche in which a woman comes to see Holmes to assist in the recovery of her employer’s stolen necklace. While the crime is not the most ingenious, I enjoyed it and felt it was quite entertaining.

Victor Gunn’s Death in December was one of the two stories I enjoyed most in this collection. Once again we have a story that echoes the traditional Christmas ghost story when a young man locks himself in a supposedly haunted room and sees a dead body that vanishes when the other guests at the house come to see what has terrified him.

Gunn packs a lot of incident into his story, making this feel like one of the more substantial stories in the collection. Once again, the solution to what is going on may not surprise but I enjoyed the two investigators, particularly the gruff Chief Inspector Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell.

Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas investigates the murder of a financial swindler in a small village. The story doesn’t overstay its welcome which I appreciated but I wasn’t wowed by the solution. I might suggest though that this reflects that it simply isn’t as good as the stories around it, rather than actually being disappointing.

Off the Tiles by Ianthe Jerrold features a suspicious death when a woman falls while walking along the guttering between houses. We are told that this is perfectly safe in normal circumstances and the victim’s sister insists that this is no accident. I wasn’t enormously drawn in by the premise for this one but I liked its resolution quite a bit.

Mr. Cork’s Secret by MacDonald Hastings was my other favorite story in this collection. As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this story was intentionally split in two to accommodate a competition that its publisher ran with a cash prize being offered to a lucky reader who could guess the answer to a question at the end.

That answer is not all that difficult to come by as the reader can stay ahead of the character in the sleuth role. I felt the story was appealing though with some entertaining characters, particularly the hotel manager and Mr. Cork himself.

The Santa Claus Club by Julian Symons is a very short story featuring a murder taking place at a charity dinner party. The victim had been warned to expect an attack but initially it is far from clear how they could have been killed. While it embraces the Christmas theme more effectively than some of the other stories in the collection, the mystery is one of those ones where the reader has little they can deduce while the action isn’t exciting enough to make for an effective adventure.

Michael Gilbert’s Deep and Crisp and Even felt more successful although it arguably feels a little pointless. The story, which once again feels very short, involves a group of carollers arriving at a house and realizing after they left that there was something strange about their visit. That realization is really pretty good but the story doesn’t follow through at all, making you wonder why you bothered.

The final story in the collection, Josephine Bell’s The Carol Singers, is a very depressing and, for me, upsetting story about an elderly woman who is alone for the holidays being assaulted and killed in her home during Christmas. That sequence is all rather brutal but quite effective. The foray into social realism turns out to be quite brief however as an aspect of the solution to what took place, while logical, struck me as both ridiculous and out of keeping with what had come before it. Overall I’d file this one away as intriguing but flawed.

As a collection I felt this was really quite entertaining and I appreciated the good mix of stories. While not all of them could be called completely successful, almost all are at least interesting and I found a few authors whose work I am keen to explore further.