The Players and the Game
First published in the UK by William Collins & Sons Company Ltd, 1972
This edition Penguin Books, 1984
Source: City Bookshop, Norwich
The Players and the Game is a 1972 psychological suspense novel by Julian Symons, the crime writer and critic who is nowadays probably best known for his history of the genre Bloody Murder.
The book opens with Paul and Alice Vane moving to the town of Rawley on the outskirts of London. Paul is Personnel Director at Timbals Plastics; Alice is his stay-at-home wife. On the surface they are a typical middle-class English couple for 1972 – think Jerry and Margot Leadbetter from The Good Life. This image soon proves to be a carefully maintained pretence, but it is a pretence for which Paul at least is prepared to move house.
The centres of middle-class social life in Rawley were the Rotary Club and the golf club for men, the social club and the Townswomen’s Guild for women, and the tennis club. The Rotary Club was for businessmen, the golf club for those on a rather higher social level including some Timbals executives, the social club for their wives… The tennis club was upon the whole the place where the sexes chiefly met, not just occasionally but all the time. The social grading there was not less accurate for being invisible and unmentioned.
Rawley also has a viper in its bosom: the titular Players. The Players are ‘Count Dracula’ and ‘Bonnie Parker’, who meet at a horror-film exhibition and hit it off immediately. Their Game is initially a shared fantasy which swiftly evolves into full-blown folie à deux. And young girls begin to vanish in Rawley.
The Rawley police initially fail to take the disappearances seriously, but soon catch on, and competent local man DCI Hazelton is assigned the case after it is decided to leave Scotland Yard out of it. Hazelton and the intuitive Sergeant Plender doggedly follow up leads but run into many dead ends before finding their first useful witness.
Meanwhile Paul and Alice are failing to fit in. He’s struggling at work, and she’s a bit of an oddball. The locals don’t take to them. And that’s before skeletons start falling out of cupboards.
Obviously, as soon as we scratch the surface of middle-class life in Rawley, all sorts of secrets begin to emerge, providing plenty of candidates for the true identities of Dracula and Bonnie. I say all sorts of secrets, but they are basically of one sort: sex. Too much of it, not enough of it, and – especially – the wrong sort of it. As a snapshot of sex in 1972 it’s interesting to see how attitudes have changed. Some of those changes are pretty staggering – particularly when you consider what seemed to merit little more than a slap on the wrist and a bit of embarrassment back then.
The Dracula-and-Bonnie sections are narrated by the Count in a pompous narrative set down in the pages of his personal journal. There are lots of CAPITAL LETTERS and much talk of Nietzsche. You know the sort of thing.
I go about my daily affairs as I always did, nobody looks at me and says, ‘That man is different.’ I can say to every man: ‘I look like you, I am like you, I am you.’ Every man plays such Games as mine in his head. To make them real, is not that the greatest Game of all?
I have no idea if the occasional-chapter-written-by-the-killer was as standard in 1972 as it is now. At least Symons doesn’t use italics…
And this isn’t simply one of those serial killer books. The sex isn’t explicit, and nor is the violence. I suspect the descriptions of the injuries inflicted on Dracula and Bonnie’s victims were shockingly frank for 1972, but they are run-of-the-mill for a modern crime reader.
And there is more going on in this book. For starters, Symons does office politics very well. Job Enrichment and Deliberate Method Change (DMC) are the latest buzzwords at Timbals, and boardroom battle is joined over them, with much naked ambition and jockeying for position. Vane’s position is being aggressively undermined by his rivals, and his habit of mixing the personal and the professional doesn’t help him much.
Symons also punctures bourgeois life pretty accurately. In that it reminds me of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles. It’s little details like this:
Bob Lowson pressed a button set in what looked like a decorative wall panel. The panel moved upward and the drinks tray inside came out. He watched the operation with pleasure.
And there is much understanding of human nature. The red-blooded Hazleton’s occasional internal commentaries are frequently hilarious.
‘Did you suggest to him that Louise Allbright was interested in him?’
‘I think I did say something like that. Louise thought he was good-looking. So he is, if you like little men.’
But you like big men, my beauty, Hazleton thought.
The Players and the Game foreshadows what is probably the dominant mode of British crime fiction today – a mix of police procedural and grand guignol – but in that I think it was probably ahead of the curve, and is given more heft by its warts-and-all depiction of respectable society.
See also: The Colour of Murder. Martin Edwards discussed TPATG back in 2011, and To Be Read also posted a review a year later (includes amusing spam commentary).
Final destination: Greenmetropolis
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Rich – You’ve reminded me that I must re-read some Symons. Thanks for the fine review.
Terrific review Rich – really made me want to go back and re-read this one.
I read some Julian Symons back in the day, and didn’t like them much, though I did enjoy Bloody Murder. You haven’t persuaded me to give this one a go, but I DID enjoy the review….