I first read Julian Symons’ 1972 novel The Players and the Game as a break from A Level exams revision shortly after it first appeared. I was a huge Symons fan then – as I still am – and I really enjoyed the book. A welcome distraction which did me a lot of good at the time, despite its grim subject matter. So I wondered how well it would stand up to re-reading.
The answer was – extremely well. I now knew the trick solution, but this time had the chance to admire how Symons concealed it from the reader. This is a book influenced by true crimes – notably the Moors Murders – where two people combine to wreak homicidal mayhem. I’m one of the many who have more recently written such a story, but few of us have matched Symons’ skill.
The book opens with an extract from a journal written by a mentally disturbed man who confuses himself with Count Dracula/Bela Lugosi, and meets a woman who sees herself as Bonnie Parker. The action then switches to a husband and wife buying a house; Paul Vane is a personnel manager who is moving to be nearer his work, but the move proves to have disastrous consequences.
Two young women go missing. One eventually turns up, but it soon becomes apparent that a serial killer (or, rather, two serial killers) are on the loose. Symons shifts viewpoint rapidly, introducing a good many characters, but he sketches them with great clarity. Which man and which woman form the killer couple?
It’s a really ingenious story, as clever as most Golden Age efforts, but it’s worn really well, with only a couple of aspects that seem dated. Symons explores the way that people wear masks to conceal their identities, and also provides a bleak picture of a man, Paul Vane, whose life falls apart. This is a really excellent mystery, much shorter than most present day serial killer stories and the better for it. I can’t understand why it isn’t more widely known.