I’ve had a mixed reading experience with Symons. I enjoyed A Three Pipe Problem (1975), but could not make it through The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968). So I was unsure how I was going to fare with today’s read. However I am pleased to say this is my best read by Symons to date and it goes to show how unreliable it can be to judge a writer’s based only on a couple of reads.
This is a story of three parts. The first is comprised mostly of a narrative by John Wilkins to a consulting psychiatrist. It details his home life, how he became married, his situation at work and his rapidly developing infatuation with the new librarian, Sheila. From the very first page we know this narrative is going to be heading to a crisis point; ‘It all began one day in April when I went round to change a library book’ – and given what ultimately happens, it certainly makes going to the library a much more hazardous pastime! The crisis point of course is murder, yet the identity of who has been done in, is very much up for debate for a lot of the story. A trial ensues, but its conclusion holds more than one surprise.
So why was this book such a good read?
First of all the plot. Whilst it holds a number of familiar tropes, Symons is successful in putting his own mark on them. In particular I think Symons writes a very good trial, as often these can feel repetitive or try. The fact he got some advice off Michael Evelyn, a.k.a. Michael Underwood, who worked in Public Prosecutions, may be one reason why this is so. The ending is a reader defying knock out, with unexpected darkness to it. I would say this story is an inventive variation and a descendent of Anthony Berkeley’s Malice Aforethought, despite not being an inverted mystery. Yet I wouldn’t say Symons is mere imitator. Whilst not being an inverted mystery, this is no conventional whodunit either, though the story does pose a number of questions for the reader.
For such a plot to work, the characters have to be right and in my opinion Symons has achieved just that. John makes an effective protagonist, despite or perhaps because of ineffectuality being one of chief traits. A failure to successfully connect with others is increasingly confirmed to be at the root of all his difficulties and in some ways I think this prompted the query in my head as to whether or not this story interacts with the angry young men tradition of the 1950s. Probably completely wrong but by the end of the story I came to the conclusion that it partially does, albeit from a more middle class point of view. Alienation, lack of understanding and loneliness are at the heart of this tale and Symons does tackle marital break down and societal fractures in a very open manner. Marriage is not shown to be a particularly happy state of being and even for those who seem to have got it all sorted, dark secrets peer out from behind the woodwork. This issue is seen more from a male perspective, i.e. wives being pushy and unaffectionate, yet I don’t think characters such as John are white washed either.
John’s narrative to the psychiatrist could have become a monotonous monologue but instead I think Symons injects a lot of life into it. His level of self-awareness is particularly interesting as he is aware of how his fantasies do not tally with real life and how others may perceive him very differently than how he does, but on the other hand, there are a number of blind spots within his self-perception. Symons writing style also plays an important part in maintaining reader engagement and one of my favourite lines is when John recalls during a conversation his wife saying she loves him, yet what makes this line so memorable is the next bit: ‘I couldn’t be certain whether she was referring to me or to the furnishings.’ Suffice to say the writing style of this story is the strongest I have encountered out of the three Symons novels I have tried.
Yet whilst John is the focal point of the tale, the other characters are also worthy of praise and attention. In particular the transformation various characters have in terms of their reactions to events in the second half of the novel were particularly pleasing and surprising, heightening the mystery in some cases. Fans of social history in their mystery fiction will also find a lot to enjoy in this book from television parties to tennis club etiquette. This story is strangely of its time, but not without themes and features which resonate with today’s society.
Given my final rating it should be no surprise that this is now one of my favourites from the British Library Crime Classics series and I am looking forward to trying the other Symons novel in their collection soon, The Belting Inheritance. The Colour of Murder, whose title has a pleasing relevance half way through the story, is a great place to start with if you are new to his work and even better if you’ve tried his work in the past, not being blown away, but prepared to give him another chance. You’ve certainly got a treat in store.
Source: Review Copy (British Library)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Won an award of any sort