Set during Christmas of 1931, Portrait of a Murderer is an unusual novel. We know from the beginning who the murderer is, and at first it looks like he is going to get away with his crime. For its time, the psychological portrait of the murderer is surprisingly deep.
Gathered together for Christmas are Adrian Gray and his family. Adrian is in financial straits because of reckless investments he made through his son-in-law, Eustace Moore. Adrian’s oldest son, Richard, is a member of parliament who has been spending heavily on a blackmailing mistress and his bid for a title. Eustace’s investments are all about to fail, with many investors bankrupted. Youngest son Brand’s need to pursue his painting full time has overcome his duty to his family.
All three men plan to ask Adrian for money that he doesn’t have. Richard needs it to pay his blackmailer. Eustace needs £10,000 to keep his investors happy. Brand wants to offload his wife and children onto his father and sister so that he can return to Paris to paint. Failing that, he’d like a loan to support them.
Brand goes to speak to his father around midnight on Christmas Eve. He gets so angry because of Adrian’s attitude toward his career and life that he lashes out. Meaning to slam a heavy paperweight onto the desk, he hits his father in the head instead. Soon he is standing there stunned by what he has done. But it’s not long before he begins trying to find a way out of it. His solution? Frame Eustace.
This novel isn’t so much about the investigation as about Brand’s mental outlook. Dashing off a portrait of himself as he stands in the murder room, Brand recognizes his own genius and decides that nothing should get in the way of his art. Meredith seems, on the whole, sympathetic with him, even as he treats his own wife and children as discardable, simply because he is not sure of the children’s parentage.
Brand’s brother-in-law, Miles Avery, is not satisfied when Eustace is charged with the crime. Despite his wife Ruth’s apprehension, he manages to work out what really happened.
There are some things that are now considered politically incorrect in this novel, originally published in 1933. In particular, anti-Semitic remarks may bother readers. Then there is Brand’s Nietschean sense of superiority, reminding me a bit of Raskolnikov without the feverishness. However, it’s a fascinating character study.