The Thirty-First of February (1950) by Julian Symons

On the 4th of February Mrs Anderson went into the cellar below her flat to get some wine. Her husband, known throughout the story as Anderson, eventually wonders why she is taking so long. He finds the light switch for the cellar stairs not working and of course he finds her at the bottom of the stairs dead – her skull fractured, and her neck broken. A verdict of accidental death is given, though there are some tentative quibbles from the jury. The story then shifts to Anderson’s workplace, an advertising agency, of which he is an executive. Yet his work has been suffering for some time. It doesn’t help then that someone seems to be playing tricks on him: his desk calendar keeps on being moved back to the 4th, a surprising letter is left on his desk and even his flat is burgled. Eventually, Inspector Cresse makes an appearance in the story. It seems that someone has been writing anonymous letters to the police, pointing the finger at Anderson for his wife’s death and it is Inspector Cresse’s job to give the case a thorough going over. Yet his presence in the book is a minimal one, as the narrative observes the disintegration of Anderson’s sanity and his troubles at work.

Overall Thoughts

As my synopsis has oh so subtly hinted, this book was not a winner for me. It can be loosely described as a crime novel, though at best I would say it was a rather dull character study. In some ways it reminded me of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) and I would go as far as saying that Symons’ text is a poor man’s version. I should also probably add that my opinion of Dostoyevsky’s original piece is the following: It was a crime it was ever written, and it is very much a punishment to read. Hopefully this viewpoint is not too heretical! What the Symons’ story has its side is its relative brevity and at times more entertaining prose style. Equally Anderson is far less of an irritating whinger, though I find Symons’ narrative focuses more on the surface level signs of unhappiness/mental deterioration, as opposed to the soul wringing of Rodion Raskolnikov. Furthermore, I would also say a lot of story revolves around the machinations taking place at the agency. The glimmer of a mystery set out in the opening chapter, doesn’t really come back into the foreground until the denouement, which is of the open-ended variety. It’s not a bad ending in and of itself, but due to the minimalist characterisation of the characters involved it has little impact on the reader.

I think it is safe that say I will be giving Symons’ oeuvre a rest for a while, a long while, but thankfully for my next read I am going back to a trusted favourite, Celia Fremlin.

Rating: 2/5

Calendar of Crime: February (1) Month in the Title

2 comments

  1. I agree 100% this time. Totally overrated. This book was included in a list of unique and must read mystery novels I came across when I was in high school and I raced to the store to buy a copy. I was bored by it and avoided Symons for decades. The ending is a huge letdown and ought to be guessed at by any veteran crime fiction reader. Even the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” TV adaptation is hardly suspenseful. The “Gaslight” element in the story of the calendar date being changed and the camera zooming in on it then cutting to Anderson’s melodramatic reaction is ridiculous to a modern viewer nowadays. Ruth Rendell wrote stories like this and they are gripping and nerve wracking. Symons never really mastered this kind of psychological suspense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hooray! Always nice when our opinions align on books. Especially helpful for this book as no one else, going on the FB comments, seems to agree, finding it to be a master piece instead. Not sure I read the same book as them lol As you say, writers such as Ruth Rendell, were a lot better at writing this sort of stuff and in a way that it doesn’t become a bit of a snooze fest. I wasn’t aware of the adaptation for TV, but I’m not surprised it isn’t that good. I think with Symons I’ve disliked more than I’ve enjoyed.

      Like

Leave a Reply to prettysinister Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.