The Colour of Murder: A British Library Crime Classic

The Colour of Murder: A British Library Crime Classic

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY MARTIN EDWARDS 'One of our most ingenious and stylish home-grown crime novelists' – Spectator 'A book to delight every puzzle-suspense enthusiast' – New York Times John ...

About The Author

Julian Symons

JULIAN SYMONS (1912-1984) was a notable writer of British crime fiction from the 1950s until his death, publishing more than ...

Read an Excerpt




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.



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.

Reviews of

The Colour of Murder: A British Library Crime Classic

“A book to delight every puzzle-suspense enthusiast”

New York Times

“The latest reissue in the British Library’s Crime Classics series comes from a writer long acknowledged as a trailblazer in psychological suspense…Symons keeps readers on their toes with his unreliable narrator and numerous misdirections, but he amply rewards us with a story that makes us think. A very welcome reissue.”

Booklist (starred review)

“…Symons, whose love/hate relationship with the tropes of the classic British mystery continued throughout his long career. This time, he achieves perhaps his most successful melding of sociological analysis, golden-age whodunit tropes, and darkly satirical sendups of the very conventions he relies on to structure this unexpectedly moving tale of a deeply ordinary man all too easily moved. This perfect choice for Poisoned Pen’s British Library Crime Classics series wears its 60 years with surprising lightness.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Symons neatly balances a sympathetic portrayal of the unlikable John with a classic whodunit.”

Publishers Weekly