First published by Collins in 1967, I have the vaguest memory of reading The Man Who Killed Himself in the seventies. I’m so glad to have rediscovered it recently in a second-hand bookshop in Scotland. The plot is as intriguing as the title and I was hooked from the first paragraph.
This is the story of Arthur Brownjohn, a meek, hen-pecked husband who decides to murder his wife. (We never reveal spoilers. This is given away on the jacket copy and in the first line.) Despite contemporary references, the novel has a similar ‘feel’ to that of Golden Age mysteries and immediately brings Malice Aforethought to mind. Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)’s legendary classic is one of my all-time favourites. However, Julian Symons puts a most original spin on the popular trope of a mild-mannered husband with murder in mind. The Man Who Killed Himself soon goes in a very different direction as Brownjohn’s troubles get increasingly complicated.
It’s impossible to say more without giving away too much. Let’s just say that the novel is brilliantly plotted, tight, intricate, has a succession of first-class twists and a clever denouement. Julian Symons’ prose is wonderful with vividly believable characters and a shrewd sense of psychology. This is a superb black comedy, gripping, very funny, sad and thought-provoking too.
The novel also has a very well-observed sense of place and time, from descriptions of the sixties in suburban Surrey and London, to Brighton and the Sussex Downs. As a child, I knew Brighton at that time and the depiction of the Lanes stuffed with antique shops, the seedy back-streets of Kemptown and the lovely old West Pier still intact, are just as it was.
Suburban life behind the privet is depicted in some lovely wry observation. The Brownjohns inhabit a world where couples visit for rubbers of bridge – and oneupmanship – serving sandwiches and coffee from a hostess trolley and a good-night whisky between eleven and twelve.
The house was called The Laurels, although there was no remaining trace of a laurel tree. …There are hundreds of such houses in Fraycut, and they are loved by those who live in them because they establish so satisfactorily their owners’ position in society.
Over the years I’d more or less forgotten how much I’d enjoyed Julian Symons’s books, recalling only his Victorian-set detective novel, The Blackheath Poisonings, which I like a lot. Now I’m keen to re-read more.
The Man Who Killed Himself is a sparkling read and should appeal to fans of Francis Iles, Hitchcock and Peter Lovesey.