Saturday, May 3, 2014

Such a Critic! Julian Symons on Hard-boiled/Noir Crime Writers

my actual copy,
purchased about fifteen years ago
The English writer and critic Julian Symons (1912-1994) produced a distinguished body of work over a wide variety of fields, including, among many crime novels, his Victorian murder story The Blackheath Poisonings (1978; reviewed here) and, among his non-fiction, his landmark mystery genre survey, Bloody Murder (1972; rev. eds. 1984 and 1992).

Symons was one of the twentieth century's most important advocates for the elevation of crime fiction--the realistic exploration of crime in fictional form--over the traditional artificial, puzzle-oriented detective story.

As such, he has long been challenged by traditionalist detective fiction fans (he had a decades-long disagreement with the late traditionalist Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012, for example; see my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, 2012).

However, it is interesting also to note Symons' frequently something less than adulatory assessments of hard-boiled/noir writers.

Here are some quotations from his Bloody Murder (Chapter Ten, "The American Revolution"):

"Bloody Critic!"
(so might say the targets
of some of Symons'
critical judgments)
Cornell Woolrich: [Woolrich] at present a cult figure in America, 'one of the greatest suspense writers in the history of crime fiction,' as one enthusiast mistakenly puts it....the melodramatic silliness and sensationalism of many of his plots, and the continuous high-pitched whine of his prose...preclude him from serious consideration."

James M. Cain: "The sexual passages of [The Postman Always Rings Twice], which now seem commonplace, were shocking at the time, but what vitiates Cain's writing is a coarseness of feeling allied to a weakness for melodrama."

The vast majority of Black Mask/Dime Detective Writers: " spite of recent attempts to take seriously the now-forgotten pulp writers of the period, like Paul Cain (unrelated to James M.), Lester Dent, Norbert Davis and Raoul Whitfield, few of them had more than the elementary skill of describing violent action with some conviction."

Jim Thompson: "Jim Thompson (1906-1976), probably the best of [the successors to the Black Mask/Dime Detective writers], is no more than an efficient imitator of other writers in the genre, particularly James M. Cain, on the evidence of four novels recently reissued....What these writers lack is individuality, so that it is difficult to tell the work of one from another."

Symons does love Dashiell Hammett ("The Glass Key can stand comparison with any American novel of its decade") and he admires Raymond Chandler, with qualifications ("It must be said that in the inevitable comparison between Hammett and Chandler, Chandler comes off second best.  There was  a toughness in Hammett that Chandler lacked, and did not appreciate....Philip Marlowe becomes with each book more a piece of wish-fulfillment, an idealized expression of Chandler himself, a strictly literary conception").

That term "strictly literary conception" tells it all, I think.  Symons placed a high premium on realism in crime fiction and that attitude caused him not only to downgrade traditional, puzzle-oriented detective fiction but also what he saw as overly stylized and "melodramatic" hard-boiled/noir fiction. 

Many today would question his judgments of Woolrich, Cain, Thompson and other writers in the tough school. Still, whether you agree with him or not, Symons' Bloody Murder, the third edition of which is still in print, makes fascinating reading and is recommended.

Today people presumably are much less familiar with Symons' book than P. D. James' much more cursory Talking about Detective Fiction--the latter has 787 votes on Goodreads compared to Bloody Murder's 67--yet if one is looking for a popular survey, one should start with Symons.


  1. I really want to read Bloody Murder but the length and depth keeps putting me off. I need to get over that. What did you think of Talking about Detective Fiction by James? I haven't bought a copy and not sure if I want to.

    1. The Symons is actually very concise and extremely well indexed so it is very easy to dip in and out of. In my personal view, which is a very fond one (I find his views more in keeping with my own sentiments than Barzun & Taylor I might add), I find it very easy to either agree and disagree with him as he is pretty consistent and is honest about what he likes and doesn't like and the fact that his aims to be a personal view and not an encyclopedic reference (indeed, he marks his territory on this very effectively in his intro). He is far from right about everything (he is incredibly hard on James Ellroy foir instance but not actually - just a question of degree in one's personal predilections and tolerance for certain things) but i think he gets a lot of things right - his is only a starting point after, but, as Curt says, a very good one.

    2. I meant to say that I don't think he is 'wrong' in what he says about Ellroy, but that I put up with what Symons hates more easily and get more benefit therefore from the work overall

    3. Well, Tracy, James is a good essayist and an enjoyable writer, so she is always worth reading, but I think there's a lot more informative detail in Symons. The main difference on the GA is that James likes Allingham, Marsh and, especially, Dorothy L. Sayers more than Symons. Symons is really pretty dismissive to Sayers' wider aspirations as a mystery writer. Also I would say that James is more sympathetic to the conservatism of the Golden Age, although she, like Symons, views the modern crime novel as generally superior to the GA detective story.

    4. Thanks, Sergio and Curt, for your replies. A lot of information there. The problem with Bloody Murder is I want to read it straight through, and if I keep aiming at that, it probably won't happen. Maybe I have to accept that I will dip in here and there or be willing to skip sections now and then.

    5. Tracy, the perfect book for you will be mine, of course ( ;) ), if I ever get it finished! I think it will be shorter than Symons too (for one thing I'm only covering about a half century). ;)

  2. Sergio, I think Barzun and Taylor can be too restrictive too, though I used to be a firm Barzunian back in the 1990s. It is interesting that Symons once commented that he and Barzun disagreed on everything, when that's actually not true. They both disliked Woolrich, for example! I think both Symons and Barzun actually shared the interest in realism, though in Symons case that was psychological realism and in Barzun it was material realism, if you will.

    Of course there are exceptions. Symons couldn't resist the lure of S. S. Van Dine and John Dickson Carr, for example.

    I was surprised looking again at Chapter Ten how tough he actually was on a lot of the hard-boiled/noir writers. Tougher than I am and I'm supposed to be the traditional detective fiction guy! And then there's Ellroy, like you mention, and he also thought Elmore Leonard was overrated as I recollect. He is certainly forthright!

    1. Whoops, checked A Catalogue of Crime and found out I was wrong about Barzun disliking Woolrich. I don't believe he was crazy about the novels, but he did praise some of his short stories. Which is certainly a far cry from Symons' pretty categorical dismissal.

      This is a good example of how you can't pigeonhole people, however, because many might incline to think it would be the other way rounds as regards these two critics and Woolrich.

  3. I used to passionately hate Bloody Murder, but my views have evolved as President Obama would say. Symons's views on hardboiled/noir I've always found refreshing, especially his take on Ellroy who definetely needs some beating. (He is a demi-god here in France and I have yet to see anything even remotely critical written about him.) Also delightful from this traditionalist's point of view was his takedown of another now-sainted overrated writer, Robin Cook (the British one, not the American)

    1. Can't agree with him on Woolrich though, even though I think it is true that sometimes Cornell was guilty of overwriting in the novels. But I think he's one of the greats overall.

      I'm not personally enamored with Jim Thompson, but surely he is pretty unique, or was in the 1950s anyway! Of course Symons was basing his judgment on four reprints. I wonder whether he ever read The Killer Inside Me?

      Have to say too, I have always liked the Chandler novels better than the Hammetts (like the Hammett short stories better than the Chandler short stories though). But I like the romantic approach that Symons less values.

      It is interesting to see how Symons tipped sacred cows in this area, when usually we just hear about how he put the traditional detective novel in its place!

    2. The reprint he mentioned would have been the Zomba Black Box volume that includes KILLER INSIDE ME along with GETAWAY, GRIFTERS and POP 1280.

    3. Sergio, hmm, that seems like a pretty distinctive set of books. I can imagine that Symons didn't like the violent depravity depicted, but still it seems like there's a unique voice to it. Hard to imagine someone else writing something quite like Pop 1280, for example!

  4. I'm not personally enamored with Jim Thompson, but surely he is pretty unique

    And fortunately so!