The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

Review published on September 11, 2018.

John Wilkins is living a rather drab life – an uninspiring job handing complaints made to a large department store, a wife whose principal focus in life is social climbing and keeping up with the Joneses, a social life that consists of Wednesday night dinners with his mother and his Uncle Dan or the occasional television party with suitably respectable acquaintances of his wife – when a chance trip to the library brings him into the orbit of Sheila Morton, librarian/femme fatale. Wilkins becomes obsessed with Sheila and engages in increasingly desperate attempts to spend time with her, ranging from regular borrowings of the novels of Moira Mauleverer, to cloak and dagger theatre trips, to a rather excruciating game of tennis.

Of course, as so often happens, the more Wilkins comes to care (or, at least, believes himself to care) about Sheila, the more he comes to hate his wife, May. The situation is clearly untenable and, from the outset of The Colour of Murder, it appears that Wilkins has cracked under the pressure of his (not so) secret passion. Indeed, the book is divided into two main sections (plus an epilogue, which, in the interests of preserving the secrets of the story, cannot really be discussed here), with the first section being mainly comprised of a statement written by John Wilkins at the request of Dr Max Andreadis, consulting psychiatrist. Wilkins tells his story in his own words and little corroborating (or otherwise) evidence is provided at this stage, so his account cannot be considered wholly reliable, although it definitely can’t be said that he paints himself as the hero of the piece.

In his informative introduction to the book, Martin Edwards describes this first section as a “whowasdunin”, since it is clear from the outset that a serious crime, given the circumstances most likely a murder, has been committed and that John Wilkins is the prime suspect, although it is far from certain who the victim is. It initially appears that Wilkins’ story is heading towards the revelation of a garden-variety crime of passion, but it soon becomes clear that there is actually far more going on. It’s no wonder that a psychiatrist’s report has been requested. Wilkins isn’t a particularly sympathetic character throughout his narrative, but it’s still not clear, even if he is the guilty party, whether he could be considered legally responsible for the crime due to his history of blackouts and memory loss.

Fittingly then, the second section of the book is principally concerned with the resultant court case and all the legal wrangling that it involves. Wilkins is represented by barrister Magnus Newton (he had, in fact, demonstrated rather too much interest in a prior case of Newton’s during the first part of the book) and all of the key characters (save for the deceased, of course) are called to give evidence. There’s also a “whodunit” element at play, as Wilkins’ mother hires a private detective to help clear her son’s name. This section is more exciting than the first, as the known facts about the crime (not least the identity of the victim) emerge and Wilkins’ own narrative is augmented by the statements and conjectures of others. Unfortunately for the defence, Wilkins’ actions and thought processes remain as clear as mud, leaving the truth behind the matter as something for the reader to puzzle out alongside the various characters.

The Colour of Murder was one of the most highly acclaimed British crime novels of the 1950s. It won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Crossed Red Herring prize (now known as the CWA Gold Dagger) in 1957, and it was considered particularly innovative due to its consideration of the psychology of crime. Happily, it’s every bit as interesting now as it was when first published. Julian Symons’ exploration of justice – both the legal process and the moral concept – is engaging and insightful. He takes an unlikeable character who has clearly got up to a fair few dodgy deeds and causes readers to question (i) whether the man is in fact guilty and (ii) if so, to what extent can he truly be considered culpable. The storyline is twisting and regularly ambiguous, and it’s a real treat for the reader to attempt to puzzle out both the crime and the perpetrator.

Another excellent mystery novel by Julian Symons, The Belting Inheritance, is also published by the British Library this month and will be reviewed on Nudge at a later date.

Erin Britton 5/5

The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons
British Library Publishing 9780712352277 pbk Sep 2018

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