The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

The Colour of Murder (British Library Crime Classics)

Poisoned Pen Press|5 February 2019 |224 pages|e-book |Review copy|4*

This edition of The Colour of Murder, published in association with the British Library, has an introduction by Martin Edwards. It was first published in 1957 by Collins. It won the prize for the best crime novel of that year awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association. I came fresh to this novel, knowing little about the plot and nothing at all about its author, Julian Symons*, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

The Colour of Murder is a cleverly written, very readable mystery, with a focus on the psychological aspects of crime. It reflects the society and racial attitudes of its time. Written in two parts – the first is a statement to a psychiatrist, Dr Max Andreadis, written in the first person, from John Wilkins, accused of a murder on the beach at Brighton. The second part, which is written in the third person, describes John’s subsequent trial.

John is an unreliable narrator and not a very attractive character. He works in the Complaints Department in large Oxford store, a job with responsibility, but poor pay and suffers from blackouts after which he declares he can’t remember what he did. Are they brought on by his drinking, or not? He has an over-possessive mother and a dull and dutiful wife May, who doesn’t get on with his mother. When he meets Sheila in the local library he finds her beautiful and irresistible. He becomes infatuated with her, but May insists she loves him and won’t countenance a divorce. Sheila is not attracted to him but she leads him on and John believes she returns his love. So when she announces she is engaged to Bill he is devastated.  At the end of the first part of the book I was left wondering who he had killed – was it May or Sheila, or Bill? That mystery is quickly cleared up in the second part with John’s trial- but I’m not revealing it now either – that would spoil the story.

By the end of the book I still wasn’t clear about the murder. Was John the murderer, was he insane or was he responsible for his actions? Or was he innocent and if so who was the murderer? What really happened? This is a book that kept me guessing right to the very end. The characters are well drawn, although maybe veering into stereotypes in John’s mother and uncle. The account of the trial is excellent, with the introduction of additional and credible witnesses giving their accounts of John’s character and actions.

*Symons’s full name was Julian Gustave Symons, born in 1912. He was a poet, biographer  (including biographies of Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle) and a criminologist as well as a novelist and critic. He was a post-war President of the Detection Club from 1976 to 1985, and wrote several crime fiction and detective novels, short stories and in Bloody Murder (US title Mortal Consequences) a history of the detective story.  In 1982 he was named as Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America – an honour accorded to only three other English writers before him: Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and Daphne Du Maurier. He died in 1994.

My thanks to the publishers, Poisoned Pen Press, for my review copy via NetGalley.

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