The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

Marry in haste…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Wilkins realises married life with his wife May isn’t living up to his expectations, he begins to fantasise about another young woman he’s met, his local librarian, Sheila. The first half of the book is taken up with John telling his story to a psychiatrist. In the second half, we are shown a murder trial. We, like the jury, have to decide whether the evidence against John stacks up, or have the defence put up strong enough counter arguments? The book doesn’t reveal who the victim is till quite late on, so I won’t either.

I do feel modern crime fiction suffers terribly from our increasingly lax laws and social order! This plot works because John is trapped in his marriage, at a time when divorce could only be obtained by mutual consent or by proving the other party at fault. May might be a dull wife, but she’s a perfect one, and since she declares she loves John, she’s not willing to countenance the idea of divorce. Sheila, on the other hand, might be a dreadful flirt but, in line with the times, this doesn’t mean she’s sexually promiscuous, to John’s great disappointment.

John is a deeply unlikeable character – narcissistic and selfish, spoiled by his doting mother, but also insecure, suspecting the motives of those around him. He’s convinced, for example, that it’s not him May loves, as much as the respectable house he provides for her. He could be right about that – she’s an aspiring social climber, though her ambitions are for John as much as herself. There’s no doubt he’s abusive towards her, emotionally and occasionally physically. And though we are hearing the story from John’s perspective, it’s clear that there are times when she’s rather scared of him.

John is a troubled man, who has blackouts whenever he drinks. It’s left rather ambiguous as to whether this is because he drinks to excess or whether it’s some kind of unfortunate reaction, meaning that it’s difficult to decide whether he deserves any sympathy for it. But there are periods, sometimes lengthy, when he can’t remember what he did or where he went, and as his emotional state grows more fragile, these episodes are becoming more frequent. So when he declares he can’t remember what happened on the night of the murder, there’s a good chance he’s being truthful. It’s up to the detective hired by his loving mother to try to find out what he was doing over the relevant time.

Julian Symons

Despite the unlikeableness of the main character, I enjoyed this one, for lots of different reasons. Symons does an excellent job of maintaining John’s voice in the first section, as he recounts his life experiences. Although his fantasies can be dark, he’s quite self-aware, and so there’s some self-deprecating and observational humour along the way. The trial section is done well, feeling quite authentic without becoming bogged down in too much detail. And I also liked the light the book casts on the society of the time. First published in 1957, it’s later than true Golden Age, and feels very much on the cusp of the change to the “modern” world of the ‘60s and beyond. Partly this is because of the social questions over divorce, at that time coming under pressure for change, and partly it’s because of the introduction of psychiatry into the story, and the examination of John’s culpability if he’s proven guilty. It also shows the worlds of work and marriage, and the beginnings of the more aspirational, socially mobile society of the second half of the century. All of this is done lightly, though, so that it doesn’t drag the story-telling down.

In the end, the way the plot played out didn’t have the impact on me that I felt was intended, though to be fair, that could well be that what was original back then feels a little too familiar now – often a problem with reading early novels that have influenced later writers. But I happily recommend it as an intelligent, enjoyable and well written psychological thriller, that has stood up very well to the test of time. My first introduction to Julian Symons, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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39 thoughts on “The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

  1. This does sound appealing, FictionFan. And it is so interesting how culture influences the choices characters have (I’m thinking about the whole divorce thing). I do like books that let us get to know the characters, even the ones we don’t particularly like. And, of course, there’s Symon’s writing style. Little wonder you thought this was good.

    • Yes, I often think with vintage crime plots that they would only work at the time they were written because they’re so tied into the social context. I wonder what future generations will think of our time based on current crime fiction… 😱 It’s hard to make an unlikeable character interesting enough to make the reader happy to spend time inside his head, but Symons did an excellent job of that. I have another of his coming up, so I’m looking forward to it…

  2. Outstanding review, FF! Nice to end the week on a positive note (well, sort of — John sounds like a complex and not-particularly-likable character). I haven’t read this, and it’s FAR too early in the year to start adding to my TBR, so I’m going to pass. Here, have a bar of chocolate instead!

    • Thanks, Debbie! 😀 I did enjoy this despite the unlikeable character – always the sign of a good writer if they can keep you interested even when you don’t like the protagonist much. Thanks for the chocolate – I’ll let you off this time then. Bribery always works… 🙂

  3. I enjoyed this review and am feeling intrigued over who, where and how… John in the bedroom with the candlestick? May in the kitchen with the knife? Or, Sheila in the library with the wrench…

    • P.s. I have to tell you something. I lost my last elderly kitty on Christmas Day. Very sad, heartbreaking, I was bereft. I am sure you know this already, but I’m slightly mad, so we went to the Humane Society and adopted three cats. The house was too empty! Their names? Three of my favorite authors. Charles Dickens (thought you like that one. ♥️), (Ernest) Hemingway, and Harper Lee.

      • Oh, Jennifer, I’m so sorry! There’s never a good time to lose one of our beloved animals, but Christmas Day is the worst! It’s so sad that they have such short little lives, but all we can do is spoil them as much as we can for as long as we have them.
        Ha! Three new cats! That should be… fun!!! 😉 Fab names – my literary kitties are thrilled! Ooh, Dickens is a great name – now I might need to get another cat! 😉 I demand pictures!

        • Thanks so much, FF. ♥️ I still can’t believe my girl is gone. And you are right- the time we have them is never long enough.

          Three cats has definitely been fun! 😂 Two are kittens and one is an adult, and we are busy, busy. Hopefully I can get a blog post up with some pics! It’s hard to get them staying still, and I need to work on my camera settings because I keep getting blurry images! On the move!

  4. I didn’t know that Symons was back in print! Glad to hear you enjoyed this one. My favorite by him was A Three Pipe Problem, which revolves around a famous Sherlockian actor.

    • Just two of his books so far, I think – this and The Belting Inheritance which I’ll be reading soon. A Three Pipe Problem sounds like fun since I’m a huge fan of all things Holmes – thanks for the rec, I’ll look out for that one!

  5. This sounds interesting, not least because of the social changes that were occurring around the time the book was written. I do love writers who really tap into the ‘issues of the day’ but remember that the story is supposed to be entertaining nonetheless.
    Sounds like you are racking up those good finds in the British Crime Classics in 2019 too – Happy New Year!

    • Haha – yes, I’m sure that’s why so much modern crime has to go into horrible subjects like child abuse – all the old motives have been done away with! Lawmakers really need to think these things through better… 😉

  6. Nice. I got it from NetGalley and now I regret that I didn’t read it. This certainly does sound like something I will enjoy.

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