Mystery crime fiction written in the Golden Age of Murder
'One of our most ingenious and stylish home-grown crime novelists' Spectator'A book to delight every puzzle-suspense enthusiast' New York Times
John Wilkins meets a beautiful, irresistible girl, and his world is turned upside down. Looking at his wife, and thinking of the girl, everything turns red before his eyesthe colour of murder.
But did he really commit the heinous crime he was accused of? Told innovatively in two parts: the psychiatric assessment of Wilkins and the trial for suspected murder on the Brighton seafront, Symons' award-winning mystery tantalizes the reader with glimpses of the elusive truth and makes a daring exploration of the nature of justice itself.
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It all began one day in April when I went round to change a library book. At least, that is the time when it seemed to me to begin, though I know you people trace things a lot farther back, and I'd like to say that I don't believe in all that. Whatever a man does, he's got to take responsibility for his own actions, that's what I believe. I don't see how the world can run any other way. I have to say that, even though I know it may be against me.
When I got home from work that evening May had one of her migraine headaches. She was lying down in the bedroom with the curtains drawn, said she'd had nothing to eat all day, but the first thing she asked me was to change her library book. That seems queer, doesn't it, when she didn't want to read, but it was just like May. You see, the library book was due back that day, and if we hadn't returned it there would have been a twopenny fine. May never forgot things like that. She was — is, I ought to say, but life with her seems so far away — a good housewife, looking after the pennies.
I ate my supper, corned beef and potato salad and part of a tin of fruit, went to the library, handed over the book. The girl who took it was new, a pretty dark girl, rather plump, and she smiled at me. It isn't very often that women smile at me, you know. I'm not attractive to women. Not that there's anything wrong with my looks, mother always said I was good-looking when I was a boy, and at school I used to get on pretty well with girls. But since I've been about twenty-one I've noticed that most girls don't want to talk to me for long. It's not bad breath or B.O. or anything like that, it's — well, I'm nervous with women, talk too fast when I'm with them, and get excited. I can't get nearer than that to what it is.
Anyway, this girl smiled at me, and I asked her if she was new, and she said she was. Then, when I was looking at the books, she came out wheeling a trolley with the books on it that had just come back, and I spoke to her, asked if they had any books by Moira Mauleverer, that was the slushy romantic novelist May particularly liked. She smiled again.
"I'm not sure, Mr. Wilkins. Do you read Moira Mauleverer?"
"Oh no," I said, and then I went on, "They're for my sister. She's an invalid, you know, confined to the house, and she reads that kind of book. I like Somerset Maugham myself."
"He's a fine author."
"He's a man of the world. Very sophisticated."
"Yes. Will you excuse me a moment?" She put the books from the trolley up on the shelves and I noticed that she had very pretty finger-nails. Then a couple of minutes later she came back to me. "Has your sister read this one? It's new, we haven't put it on the shelves yet." She held out the book in its glossy jacket, Princess Make Believe by Moira Mauleverer. As I took it our hands touched, and I felt a kind of thrill go up my arm.
Then I began to thank her and perhaps I went on too long because she began to seem a little embarrassed and said she must go back to the issuing counter now. So I took the book and went home. That was the first time I met Sheila, and that very first time I told her a lie, saying that May was an invalid and pretending that she was my sister instead of my wife. I don't know now why I did it.CHAPTER 2
The next day May was better, up in the morning to get breakfast, and pleased about the book. She said she would be well enough to go to work — she had a part-time job at a local stationer's shop — and I went off feeling more cheerful than usual. We were going round to see mother that evening, we always went there on Wednesdays, and I arranged that we would meet there.
At work, though, things didn't go smoothly that day. You know my job, assistant manager of the Complaints Department in Palings, the big Oxford Street store. It's an important position, you know, I carry a great deal of responsibility, although the pay isn't very high, five hundred and fifty a year. That morning the manager of the department, my immediate superior, Mr. Gimball, called me in.
"How are you this morning, Mr. Wilkins?" he asked.
"I'm fine, sir," I said heartily.
"No more of those blackouts, I hope."
"Not a trace." I'd had two or three blackouts during the past year. I mean by blackouts that I'd gone out for lunch, had a couple of drinks, and apparently not returned in the afternoon. I was never quite sure that Mr. Gimball believed my explanation that I didn't know what had happened, although it was perfectly true. The last blackout had been just before Christmas, and after it Mr. Gimball had suggested that I should take a couple of days off.
"You aren't feeling the strain of overwork or anything like that?"
I thought about the way the girl in the library had smiled at me, and laughed confidently. "Oh no, Mr. Gimball."
"Then how do you explain these?" He pushed three letters across the desk at me, and I read them. They were complaints letters, one about a pair of stockings, another about a pullover, and the third a complaint from a woman that one of the assistants in the soda fountain had insulted her. Mr. Gimball tapped this letter. "A week old. We've had another letter from her to-day threatening to take legal action against the firm."
"This is the first I've seen of these letters, Mr. Gimball."
"They all have our date stamp of receipt. They have been on your desk since they came in."
"Oh no." I simply had to say it. "That's not true."
"Are you calling me a liar, Mr. Wilkins?" I always thought of Mr. Gimball as a frosty man — his hair was like frosty powder, little gleams of frosty light twinkled off his spectacles, he always wore a gleaming pearl tie-pin. I suddenly realised that to-day he was even frostier than usual.
"Of course not, sir. I only mean that I know I should have seen these letters if they'd been on my desk. You know I've always adhered faithfully to the Gimball system. We Turn Complaints to Compliments, I never forget that." That was one of Mr. Gimball's slogans, and it was stuck up all round the department.
"I'm glad of that. So you've never seen these letters before."
Something about the way he spoke made me say, "Not to the best of my knowledge."
He lifted his telephone and asked for Miss Murchison. She was a long-nosed, red-eyed girl who looked after the filing, and I knew she didn't like me. When she came in he asked, "Where did you find these letters, Miss Murchison?"
"On Mr. Wilkins's desk, sir, under a lot of other papers. I mentioned them to him, sir, two days ago. He said not to bother him now, he was too busy." I stared at her, astonished. Her hangdog look, the way she mumbled her words, convinced me that she was speaking the truth. Yet I could remember nothing about it. Or could I? Distantly, somewhere in the haze of memory, I seemed to recall Miss Murchison speaking words like these. Then why had I paid no attention to them, what had I been doing? I thought about this, and suddenly became aware that Gimball was talking to me and that Miss Murchison had gone.
"What were you doing that was of greater importance than our proper business of turning complaints to compliments, Mr. Wilkins?"
"It is true that we've been very busy lately —"
"You informed me five minutes ago, however, that you were not overworked."
I felt sweat on the palms of my hands. I knew I was gabbling. "I know, but we are sometimes very busy, you know yourself these things go in waves. You know I wouldn't let a thing like this slip by unless there were exceptional circumstances. I frankly don't recall Miss Murchison speaking to me about this, although I accept that she did. If you'll let me have that letter from the lady who's written twice —"
"I have already replied to it. The letter was brought to me only because it was a second communication and the first had not been answered. I am wondering how many other cases of delay have occurred which have not been drawn to my attention."
"None at all," I said eagerly. "I'm sure of that."
"What I can't understand, Mr. Wilkins, is how you came to overlook these. That is really incomprehensible to me."
He seemed to expect an answer. "I shall see it doesn't happen again."
"Perhaps a transfer to another department —"
"I hope you won't think that necessary, Mr. Gimball." This was really a threat. Transfer to another department meant that I should be downgraded to some kind of clerk's job. I thought that would be the end of it, but he talked for another ten minutes before he let me go.
I went back and dictated letters at once, sending a pair of new stockings to the woman, and asking the man to return his pullover. I looked at everything else on my desk and dealt with all the items that had any urgency at all about them. I went through the rest of the day in a kind of daze.
Because, you see, while I had been talking to Gimball I had remembered those letters being on my desk, I remembered thinking that I must answer them. Why hadn't I done so? When I reached that question my mind became blank and at last, some time in the afternoon, I gave up trying to answer it and began to think again about the girl in the library.CHAPTER 3
May didn't much like going round to mother's place every Wednesday, she only did it because I insisted, and she often complained. There were several reasons for this, as far as I could make out. One was that we had a flat in Windover Close, a newish block overlooking the south side of Clapham Common, while mother lived in a small house in Baynard Road, one of the small roads between the Common and Wandsworth Road.
There was nothing wrong with this house, you understand, but when father died, that was when I was in the Army, mother hadn't much money. We moved out of the big house in Kincaid Square and she bought this one in Baynard Road. There was nothing wrong with the house as I've said, it was like all the others in Baynard Road to be sure, but it was respectable. I'd been living there myself when I first met May. I had a kind of affection for the place, even liked the little squeaking iron gate and the dust patch at the back that you couldn't call a garden.
May hated it. She'd been brought up herself in Nelson Terrace, which was much worse than Baynard Road, on the wrong side of Wandsworth Road, really in Battersea, not Clapham. Her own mother and father — well, May never wanted to be reminded about them or about that kind of life. I think Baynard Road did remind her. She was a great one for having nice young couples in to play bridge and drink coffee and eat little sandwiches cut into shapes of hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds and watch TV. She was always on at me to ask Gimball and his wife to dinner, and used to say I had no idea of improving my social position. It was funny she should be like that when she wanted to forget all about her own social background, but that's the way it was. And then she didn't like mother, and hated Uncle Dan, who lived in Baynard Road too, and — but I'd better get back to that evening, which was like all the other evenings and yet a little different.
The pattern of the evenings never changed much. We would have dinner, a good solid dinner of the kind I liked, the kind that May never cooked for me. Then there'd be a bit of talk, and we'd settle down to play cards, sevens or Newmarket or solo whist. May really only liked playing bridge, she said the games we played round at mother's were slow and old-fashioned.
That evening there was steak and kidney pie, plenty of kidney inside and a nice brown crust on top. When I passed up my plate for more, mother said, "I knew you'd be asking for a second helping. I don't forget my boy's favourites."
"You shouldn't have any more, John," May said. "It's gluttony, really. It's not good for you."
"Not good for him." Mother held up her hands in astonishment. "Steak and kidney pie never hurt anybody."
"It's delicious pie." May snapped off the word pie as though she were biting it. "But too much isn't good for John. He's getting fat."
It was a fact that I'd put on a bit of weight in the last few months. Doubtfully I said, "I don't know, perhaps May's right."
By now two great tablespoonfuls of pie were on my plate. "Can't take it back now," mother said. "It won't hurt him for once. After all, he doesn't get it very often." She didn't mean any harm but I could see from May's face that it was the wrong thing to say.
"Eat it up, boy. Be all the same in a hundred years," boomed Uncle Dan. He was my mother's brother, a big man with a fine shock of grey hair, who had done all sorts of things in his time — trading in a Chinese junk up the Yangtse, acting as agent for several British firms in the Far East, and finally running an insurance book in south-west London. He had given this up a few months back and now lived with my mother as a kind of lodger or paying guest.
After the pie came treacle pudding. Uncle Dan ate heartily, and so did I. May hardly touched her piece. Afterwards we had the usual argument about helping with the washing up, and as usual mother finally agreed to let us wipe the plates. May never let guests help with the washing up at home. When it was done she said she was too tired to play cards. Mother had just got down the pack from its place on the mantelpiece. Now she paused.
"Too tired to play cards," Uncle Dan said incredulously. "Why, girl, I've sat up all night playing solo, drinking whisky, felt fresh as a daisy at the end of it. Nothing like a game of cards to take you out of yourself when you're feeling down."
"I'm not feeling down," May said. "Just too tired to play cards."
"Tell you what, we'll have a change." Uncle Dan took the cards and gave them what he called his cardsharp's shuffle. "We'll have a real little flutter to-night, a game of pontoon."
"Pontoon would be a nice change." That was my mother.
"Need to get the rules straight first. My experience is every school has its own different way of playing. Split on aces only, is that agreeable to all? Pay double for pontoons, treble for five-card tricks, maximum stake threepence, banker can double if he wants. A real gamble, eh?"
"I don't want to play cards," May said in a high voice.
"Have a little flutter and see if you can be the first lady to break the bank at Monte Carlo," said Uncle Dan. "Wonder if I've got enough money for this gambling school now, where are my coppers?"
Mother said in the very quiet voice she uses when she feels hurt, "May said she didn't want to play cards, Dan."
Uncle Dan looked quickly at my mother and at May, then he put the cards away again in their case. We spent the rest of the evening talking about the weather and the neighbours and whether it was better to own your house or rent it. Mother kissed my cheek with an extra pressure when she said good night. Uncle Dan asked why I didn't join the tennis club this year. I said I would think about it. I had been a pretty good player, but I'd given it up when I got married because May didn't like the game.
Walking back home over the Common, May and I didn't talk to each other. When we'd got into the flat, though, she said, "That's over for another week, thank goodness."
"You upset mother."
"She knows I don't like to play cards. Why does she produce them every time we go over as if she were giving us a treat?"
"You play bridge."
"That's a real card game."
"Just once a week doesn't hurt, surely."
May was off on a new tack. "Don't think I didn't notice what your mother said about the steak and kidney pie. Won't hurt him for once, doesn't get it very often, I know just what she means. And that awful vulgar old man with his bad jokes. It's not just once a week, it's been once a week for years."
"What's the matter with Uncle Dan? I must say I'm surprised to hear you talking about vulgarity. I don't think it comes very well from you."
She turned to me. Her face was flushed, but her long nose was quite white. "That's a mean thing to say. Just because my father was a workman —"
"A street bookie," I said. "When he wasn't drunk or in prison."
She sat down in a chair and began to cry. Phrases came through the tears about having made a good home for me, my family always having been against her, I was ashamed of her, and so on.
"Stop it," I said, and then I shouted, "Stop it. It's all nonsense."
"Your mother hates me. I took away the baby boy she used to make steak and kidney puddings for."
I hit May then. It was the first time I'd ever hit her. I struck her with the palm of my hand across the cheek, not very hard but enough to make a mark. She put her hand to her cheek, stopped crying, and looked surprised.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Colour of Murder"
Copyright © 2018 The Estate of Julian Symons.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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