The third of my wife’s birthday selections, and the last I’ll open for a while as I’m doing some Euro Crime reviews next. A lovely bright cover, stickered 50c for sale in the US, shows the protagonist John Wilkins staring wistfully at Sheila’s back. ‘Murder breaks the web of fantasy’.
The first part of the book takes the form of a transcript of a series of statements to a psychologist from a suspected murderer, John Wilkins.
Wilkins is at great pains to be honest with the psychologist, and is in fact excruciatingly frank about his short-comings as a man, as a husband, and as an employee. There is something amiss with Wilkins, and he is painfully aware of it.
‘It is’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.’
He is trapped in a sexless marriage and a job he can’t do, and spends his time fantasising about Sheila, a local librarian who frankly gives him very little encouragement. To make matters worse for himself, Wilkins is becoming an alcoholic and suffering from black-outs.
‘On my left cheek, smudged but plainly visible for what it was, showed the mark of a pair of lips. I washed it off and went downstairs, much shaken. Of the occasion when those lips had stamped themselves upon my face I could remember nothing.’
Wilkins is hard for the reader to like, but there is definitely something winning about his transparency as he relates misadventure after misadventure. He blunders from being caught by a nosy neighbour with Sheila at the theatre, to flirting in a seedy club under the nose of his father-in-law, to (very unfortunately, as it turns out) asking his uncle what he thinks of murder. His biggest error, though, is arranging a second honeymoon with his wife in a Brighton hotel not five minutes from where Sheila is holidaying with her invalid father. With a grim inevitability, his next black-out covers a murder.
Part two sees Wilkins caught in the legal machinery of a trial for murder, with disinterested (or simply uninterested) professionals responsible for his welfare.
‘”I suppose there’s no doubt he did it.”
“Shouldn’t think so.” Mr Likeness was looking at the cricket scores in the stop press news of his partner’s paper. “But you never know. I’m going up to Lords for a couple of hours. It looks rather like an exciting finish up there.”‘
The facts are against Wilkins: He had means, motive and opportunity, and cannot provide a convincing explanation for his movements on the night of the killing, or for the blood on his clothes. A local man believes he heard him laughing on the beach when the murder was taking place. In his favour are his frankness and honesty in the dock, and the evidence of a dubious witness who comes forward late in the trial.
The jury’s conclusion is in question until the final moments and even then it is not at all certain that justice has been done. ‘The choice rests with you,’ as the blurb on the back cover has it.
Symons won the 1957 CWA award for this, and I would say he deserved it.
Final destination: A keeper
BTW if you like Symons, Amy at Stuff and Nonsense has shared some letters he wrote to her in the 80s.