Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Like Some Vestigial Limb, the Great Detective Lingers on...." Julian Symons on Nero Wolfe

Julian Symons
Central to crime writer and critic Julian Symons' view of crime writing in his original edition of Bloody Murder (1972; rev. eds. 1985 and 1992) is his opinion that the traditional detective novel was essentially played out.  As part of this view, Symons sees the Great Detective as irrelevant in the modern age.

Exhibit A: Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe.

....But time went on and books piled up, Wolfe had sometimes to be taken away from home, and the problems involved in all series characters who appear in many stories became evident. These are, of course, greater when the characters are built up from a few superficial attributes, like love of beer and orchids and a gourmet's appreciation of food.  The decline became very steep after the end of the forties, which produced some books very near to Stout's best work....There are good things to be found in the later novels...but most convey a sense of effort, of  a man going through the motions of creating one more story about characters who have ceased to mean much to him.  

--Julian Symons, Bloody Murder

And here's what Symons, as a Sunday Times book reviewer, wrote contemporaneously with Stout, in a review of Stout's Nero Wolfe novella collection Three for the Chair back in the 1957:

Might as well be dead?
Nero Wolfe
Like some vestigial limb, the Great Detective lingers on, although the social conditions that encouraged his omniscient amateurism have long since vanished.

Consider, for example, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe....Three for the sad comment on past glories....Could not Mr. Stout arrange for [Nero Wolfe] to pass away after an excess of salmon mousse and blueberry pie?

But, no, Nero did not die; he not only lived on to appear in yet more Rex Stout novels and novella collections--some of them quite good--he has appeared in books written by Robert Goldsborough, after Rex Stout's death in 1975.  Wolfe remains quite popular (as an advocate of "forgotten authors" would it be out of place for me to add that today many more people read Stout's books than do those of Julian Symons, just as people did in the 1950s?).

Symons' objection to the Great Detective in crime fiction seems as much political as aesthetic. Is the Great Detective inherently a product of conservative social conditions, as Symons thinks?

With the modern Sherlock Holmes film and television revival, the continued popularity of Papa Poirot and Miss Marple, the appearance on the last decade or so of successful television series like Monk and The Mentalist, it would seem that people still very much like the idea of a Great Detective who can solve seemingly unsolvable conundrums, even in a very different time. We aren't just relying on gloomy Scandinavian cops to save the day for us (though arguably even a lot of cops in crime novels have Great Detective attributes, and they are very much series characters).

The fondness for more "traditional" mystery even Julian Symons has to ruefully acknowledge in the final edition (1992) of Bloody Murder:

Why is it, the Spanish-Mexican crime writer Paco Taibo asked me a year or two ago...that the British...produce books that are firmly embedded in the cosy world of the past, hopelessly out of date? At the time I simply denied the suggestion, but reflection showed substance in the comment. In Britain the cosy crime story still flourishes, as it does nowhere else in the world. We are a long way from the fairy-tale crime world of Agatha Christie, but a large percentage of the mystery stories published in Britain are deliberately flippant about crimes and their outcome in a way not paralleled in American crime writing or, if one can judge by translation, that in other countries....

....This is a product for which there is still a steady demand, as the recent foundation in the United States of a club for the preservation of the Cosy Crime Story shows [Could Symons be referring to Malice Domestic here? TPT]

Paco Taibo wondered back in the early 1990s why
British mysteries were so hopelessly out of date

Symons comments critically on the "refusal" of some British crime writers (he lists Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, Patricia Wentworth, Margery Allingham and Christianna Brand) "to be serious about anything except the detective and the puzzle."

Setting aside the unfairness, as I see it, of so broadly referring to Agatha Christie's fictional world as "fairy-tale" and categorizing Allingham and Brand as authors who invariably refused seriousness (I have written about Allingham numerous times here and, as for Brand, I think some of her characters and situations in books like Green for Danger and Tour de Force are moving), it would seem that Symons near the end of his life was having to reassess his confidence about the inevitability of the shift from what he saw as the conservative, puzzle-oriented, superficial, "cosy" detective story to the liberal, psychologically and socially realistic, gritty crime novel. He would have had to reassess even more had he picked up on the American "cozy crime" phenomenon!

A lot of these modern cozy mysteries are, I should add, conventionally liberal, not conservative (to be sure, we are not likely to get probing explorations of myriad social ills in a book entitled Peach Pies and Alibis, but there are more serious books that are categorized as "cozy," like those by Louise Penny and Margaret Maron). Stout, despite being saddled with a Great Detective, himself certainly gave expression to liberal sympathies in his books, even if he remained first and foremost a tale spinner.

And some, perhaps most, of these modern cozy mysteries, despite investing a lot of effort in series detectives, do not actually take the matter of the puzzles all that seriously, while some of the tougher, more socially probing books have very good puzzles. I'm guessing Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake (1943) has a better puzzle than, say, Lillian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who Said Cheese (1996). As Doug Greene has argued, puzzles do not foreclose social commentary in mystery novels, authors do.  If an author has the inclination, she can produce mysteries with both social commentary and puzzles.

All in all, I think change in the mystery genre over the decades has been not quite as linear as Symons' original formulation makes it out to be.  The Great Detective, the puzzle, to "cozy" milieu have proven more durable than he and others thought they would be, and have now outlasted Agatha Christie herself by nearly forty years.

By the way, despite my great admiration for Stout's Some Buried Caesar (1939), I think the greatest period for the Wolfe books was 1946 to 1965.  Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe saga in these years may well have been as popular as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series and to me is, in terms of sheer quality, one of the very greatest achievements in American mid-century mystery. It should be getting more attention from academic scholars interested in American cultural history, even if it is considered "cozy."

don't underestimate the durability of the Great Detective


  1. Poor Julian, he's never going to catch a break, is he? But seriously ... if we take conservative to mean instinctively backward-looking and fundamentally orthodox, then I see no reason to disagree with his statement. You're not really saying that Christie's books are realistic though, are you? I agree that Symons probably would have been surprised and dismayed at some of the retrogressive trends in crime fiction - he's not the only one

    1. By the way, Sergio, have you ever read Paco Taibo's genre work? I notice some is in English translation.

  2. Sergio, re: Symons, just wait till I get to his comments on Josephine Tey! ;) Maybe a few additional people will be encouraged to buy Bloody Murder, I hope they do. It's a stimulating book.

    The cozies have been rather resilient, haven't they? There's certainly a lot of conservatism in the classical form, though I--and I'm not alone in this--have argued that the form had more diversity than Symons believed. Even the conservatives had variety in their views. I'm always reminded of his amusing comment in Bloody Murder about how the social order of Golden Age detective novel was restricted as that of the Incas (paraphrasing a bit). You haven't yet read Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, have you, I get into it much more detail there.

    I do think the "fairy tale" appellation is a little unfair to Christie. This reminds me of P. D. James "Christie-land." Yet even PD James writes that the world of Mayhem Parva "isn't [an exaggerated, romanticised or idealised world], not altogether." Christie's social world is restricted, but it's not necessarily false. There's good social satire in her work and she does move toward a more realistic treatment of character in the late 30s/40s. Of course such cleverness in murder plots is artificial, but that's a hazard of the form. There is a mythic quality to classical detective fiction, but I think one can say the same thing about the hard-boiled or even the modern police procedural.

    Do you feel the modern cozies have a conservative ideology? Books by Louise Penny and Margaret Maron, for example, if we categorize them as such, seem to be to have something of a liberal bent and some serious intention. Not radical, but not conservative either. Just read Patrick Ohl on Penny's handling of religion! I think in these books we have a qualitative difference from, say, Patricia Wentworth.

    Also is the Great Detective absolutely incompatible with political liberalism? Or having an intricate puzzle? It seems to em these things have held on in the modern era, something I'm pleased to see.

    It does seem to me Symons really felt like the Great Detective was something that needed to be cast on the rubbish heap of history, so to speak. It's something he obviously felt very strongly about--to the point of wishing death by mousse on Nero Wolfe!

    1. I take your point Curt because a lot of this is purely, to my mind, only a question of degree. I think Symons wanted Poirot, Fell, Wolfe et al retired so that the genre could move on - I don't think any one of us would try to claim that these characters after all helped shape the detective story into new directions. Personally I wouldn't want to do without them (like you, I prefer the slightly looser later Wolfe books in fact) but if you are looking for a genre to really develop as a literary form, well, these were not the characters to do it with!

      I can't pretend to know a lot about the 'modern' cozy (sic) Curt (and have yet to read your Humdrums book, for shame) but my feeling is that most people would read a cosy (UK spelling from now on) because it is essentially unthreatening and escapist, as the name suggests. Obviously one can point to specific examples where the pattern is amended and changed, but surely that proves the rule without actually negating the validity of the general observation? When most people say they read a harboiled PI novel, they think of Marlowe and Spnser - the fact that it could just as easily feature a woman as its protagonist and that it could be a dwarf with a comic sensibility doesn;t mean that the overall perception of the genre is innaccurate - just not detailed or faceted anough.

      The great detective has had to change with the times when not set in the past or aiming to be a pastiche - MONK and MENTALIST (and CASTLE and LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT and ELEMENTARY etc etc) are great examples, but they are either ex-cops or work directly with them and that is how the figure has moved on, splicing the two genre more closely together. I think HOUSE is a more interesting variation on the Holkmesian figure.

      Is the 'fairy tale' appelation automatically one with a pejorative connotation? It's not like THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS has much to say about young offenders - it's stills et in a la-la land country manor after all.

  3. Yes, I think that's an accurate expression of Symons' feelings: the Great Detective was standing in the way of the crime novel as he perceived it. Hence what seems like a "purge" mentality coming from him on this matter. I think it colored his predictive capability, which he seems to be recognizing in the third edition of Bloody Murder.

    I imagine the impetus in reading a great deal of crime fiction is escapist. And so much of it, not just the cozies, restores some semblance of order at the end--it gives readers that satisfaction of a problem solved, a malefactor punished. Not always the case of course. Symons made sure to withhold ordered endings in a number of his books, as you know.

    Certainly Christie's handling of juvenile delinquency in Mirrors is none to convincing! On the other and, she's better on the dreadful guest house in Mrs McGinty's Dead or Chipping Cleghorn in A Murder Is announced. I wouldn't say that's all fairyland. But obviously one of the things the modern mystery does better is exploring different social groups beyond the white middle and upper class. Can it be done with a Great Detective or an intricate puzzle?

    Have you seen the police in Monk? By the end of that series they surely rivaled the dumbest cops in crime fiction! ;) And The Mentalist pretty much led everyone around by the nose. Classic Great Detectives. They even killed off the wives and gave them emotional baggage so that they would have no sex lives (it's hard to imagine Monk ever having one in the first place).

  4. I agree completely about MONK which I enjoyed as a puzzle show but thought it interesting that it was ncessary to involve the police at all, as you say. I was always worried that they would magic away all his hangups in the last episode, which almost but not quite happened ... MENTALIST has got quite weird now that he's with the FBI (well, again, a truly bizarre and cosy idea of what the FBI is probably like ...)

    1. I have to admit I gave up on The Mentalist this year, though I understand it has been renewed for another season. Maybe Jane and Lisbon will come together a la Peter and Harriet!

      By the way, glad you agree about the Stouts. I tend to find the thirties ones a bit stodgy (and this from a Humdrum fan). Of course Symons praised some of the earlier postwar ones and even gave a shout-out to The Doorbell Rang, which is one where Stout really indulged his civil libertarian passion. I did think it was finny though that by 1957 he was advising Stout for the sake of Art to kill off Wolfe (a gourmet death, naturally).

  5. I've often wondered whether the reason for the temporary eclipse of 'The Great Detective' after the War was something to do with a feeling amongst critics that the genre was starting to be taken seriously. TGD's were like potentially embarassing relatives who kept turning up and reminding them of the bad old days. If they could turn the detective novel into a socially conscious crime novel, and cut out all the dumb stuff like clues and surprise twists, they would be reviewed in the serious part of the arts section of the newspaper. It's interesting how the move back to TGD has come not so much from the literary world as from the world of popular TV, which is probably less worried about being pulled up for not being serious enough. There are now loads of wannabe Great Detectives on TV, often as eccentric as their literary predecessors. There was an interesting quote from David Renwick about Jonathan Creek, where he pointed out that it didn't matter how bizarre the events were in the actual story, as long as you believed in the characters. The modern reboot of SHERLOCK has spent a lot of time making the relationship between the main characters rounded and believable, no matter how bizarre the stories are.

    1. And Jonathan Creek is another great example of all this! an amateur sleuth running around solving miracle problems. You can't get much more "traditional" than that, although he does have a sex life, including sexual tension with his female Watson (at least the first one).

      I think Sergio is right, Symons and others were feeling the Great Detective, the puzzle, the cozy milieu was holding the genre back from making meaningful statements about life as it is and would have to go.

  6. "Amateurism" is a bit careless from Symons. Wolfe's attitude to detection is like Samuel Johnson's to literature (No man but a blockhead ever detected, except for money).

    It's easy to understand his blindspot for the books, though. It's as if Stout had created a genre within the genre. There are deliberate constraints and expectations, that are always present; and if you're not a fan that can look like monotony. It's not that the fixed points in the series are all that there is to it; but a lot of the interest is how each new story plays out against these ground rules.

    1. Good point, if Stout is getting a fee he's no more an amateur than the hard-boiled guys (who often seem not to actually get paid).

      Stout's books do seem to me to have aspects of "fairy-land"--that would of the Brownstone--and certainly ritual: there's always the question of how Wolfe will be cajoled to take a case, the confrontations with Cramer, which is like kabuki theater, fights with Archie, details about dining, etc. But, personally, I think Stout write some very fine stuff from 1946-66, certainly better than some of the stuff he wrote in the 1930s. Amazing considering his terrific rate of production in those years.

  7. that piece prompted two thoughts: Firstly, regarding Symons implication that a puzzle removed the seriousness of a story, I remembered Reginald Hill saying something to the effect that writing detective stories has never prevented him from debating the issues he wanted to within his stories, he just needed to add a mystery to it.

    Secondly I think its a real shame we never got to see symons the critic assess the work of symons the crime writer- i think he could have done a real hatchet job !

    1. LOL! I recall he had his friend Edmund Crispin assess his own books for Bloody Murder. Crispin did a fair job, despite their difference in temperaments, both politically and aesthetically.

      You are so right about Hill, I need to talk about him sometime. Symons liked Hill too!

      I think Symons made some worthwhile points in Bloody Murder. Certainly the hyper fidelity to "rules" urged by people like Van Dine would have held back the genre, if taken seriously very long. But looking back at Symons now, after over forty years since the first publication of Bloody Murder, he seems too dogmatic to me. And not only not entirely fair not only to the Humdrums, but to the Crime Queens, Stout, Cornell Woolrich, the American hard-boiled/noir movement outside of Hammett and arguably Chandler (I think he could give Chandler more credit too) and a whole host of women suspense writers, aside from, mostly, Patricia Highsmith.

    2. Interesting. i didn't know Crispin did that. In my copy he asks H R F Keating to do the same thing

    3. Yeah, it's in the first edition. I don't know how he dealt with it in the second, I have a copy of it somewhere.

  8. Oh and Christie was really critical of post war England in Taken At The Flood, but I suppose thats a moaning about the breaking down of conservative society, although i think there is an unexpected tone of satire there.

    1. I agree there's some interesting stuff in Taken at the Flood, although the ending is kind is a cop-out! But it's not all airy-fairy, divorced from the real world and real world emotions and psychology.

  9. Dickson-Carr's BELOW SUSPICION is also highly critical of conditions in post-War England. I don't think that I remember another of his books so relentlessly gritty and dark. The idea that the traditionalist detective story authors were somehow producing books with fairy tale backgrounds is only really tenable if you don't actually read any of them. One of the things that annoyed me about the Lucy Worsley book that was discussed a little while back was the feeling that she hadn't really read very widely. Margery Allingham was producing stuff like THE CHINA GOVERNESS in the 60s, which touched on the whole social engineering debate that took place after WWII, but as far as she was concerned it was all posh detectives and country houses. I think that Symons was actually rather fond of some of the classic detectives (The book that he did with Tom Adams--THE GREAT DETECTIVES--betrays a great knowledge and understanding of the Golden Age) but felt that the genre needed to become respectable by ditching them. I disagree, but I can see where he was coming from.

    1. Good point about The China Governess! Worsley did get irked with Julian Symons when he dared to criticize Gaudy Night, but otherwise she seems to rely heavily on him. She finds whats' really interesting about Allingham and Marsh is not their books but their lives. I think the fans who love their books would disagree.

      Symons' attitude about the Golden Age seems to be rather, when I became a man, I put away childish things....

  10. Is the Great Detective inherently a product of conservative social conditions...? One of the great non-questions of our time.

  11. When popular writers of the 21st century want to take on the detective story genre they should READ A LOT OF THE BOOKS and they should be FORBIDDEN to read Symons, James or anyone else who just reheats the old clichés. They should probably also avoid Karl Marx.