Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Adventures of Rufus King: The Making of a Major Vintage Mystery Writer

What to do after college is a perennial question for graduates.  Some gets jobs.  Some go to grad school.  Some take a gap year.  

The "Rainbow Division" 
had its inception in the New York
National Guard, but took units
from across the country, 
"like a rainbow" as Major
Douglas MacArthur put it

Future mystery writer Rufus Franklin King, the only child of successful New York doctor Thomas Armstrong King, was supposed to enroll in law school in the fall at Columbia University when he graduated from Yale in 1914 at the age of 21, but things didn't work out that way.  

When Rufus balked at the prospect of "taking silk," speaking loosely, his father "put him to work in a silk mill" (Rufus' words) at Paterson, New Jersey.  (Dad had his hand on the purse string, don't you know.)  This was just a year after the famous general strike at Paterson in 1913, which was a great progressive celebrity cause of its day.

Rufus stuck it out in the grim wilds of New Jersey, 20 miles from his native Manhattan, for just two years, until 1916, when he joined Squadron A Calvary, a unit of the New York State National Guard composed of "many of the foremost young society men of New York," to serve adventurously in the Mexican expedition against the forces of Mexican revolutionary leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa.  

When, with American entry into the Great War in 1917, Squadron A was reorganized the following year as the 105th Field Artillery, King served overseas in Europe in Battery A from June 5, 1918 through March 13, 1919. 

During this time King performed with great valor and was awarded the Silver Star Medal for his heroism during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which was conducted over seven weeks in the fall, culminating in the German armistice on November 11, 1918, after over 26,000 Americans had been killed, along with a like number of Germans.  It remains the deadliest battle in US Army history.

battery of the 105th Field Artillery, France
At the large wood known as the Bois de Sachet, Lieutenant King stepped into the breach with his pair of guns after the wounding of his Captain, "displaying great initiative, energy and unusual military ability."  As Rufus later put it in a publicity blurb, he "was cited for holding the front line in the Bois de Sachet with two French .75s."  

After leaving the US Army in 1919, Rufus bloody well wasn't going back to a prosaic life in Paterson, New Jersey.  

Instead of going back to the silk mills, he became the senior wireless operator aboard the steamship Annetta, which was leased to a fruit company, and spent much of his time in Latin American ports, enjoying many adventures.  

Off Pernambuco, Brazil he "salvaged a ship...and hauled it into port" and "he beachcombed along the waterfront of Buenos Aires."  An attractive and charismatic blond American still in his twenties, "Rufe" doubtlessly collected some fetching objects on his waterfront wanderings.

Canon de 75 modele 1897

It was in Panama that Rufus completed a manly adventure story and sent it on to the pulp magazine Argosy.  On his next return to Panama, so the story goes, he found an acceptance letter from the magazine along with a check; and he thereupon resolved to return to the US and make his living from fiction writing.  (Of course being the only child of a wealthy doctor didn't hurt, but the publicity material never mentioned that little detail.)  

Presumably this career-altering tale was the serial "Dirty Weather," which appeared in Argosy in three parts in October 1922.  Still, on returning to the US he worked for a time in the maritime division of the New York City police (boats again), so he hadn't exactly bet the farm, so to speak, on writing.  

I have a feeling boats are involved again!

"Dirty Weather" was followed in Argosy by the serials "Dirty Work" in May 1924, "Tuned Out" in September 1924 and "North Star" in February 1925.  "Tuned Out" was later repackaged as a mystery (which is isn't) and published as The Fatal Kiss Mystery in 1928, as a follow-up to Rufus' first mystery novel, a very Roaring twenties affair entitled Murder De Luxe (1927).

"North Star," a "dog tale" about a heroic German shepherd who rescues his dumb master from disaster, became Rufus' first published novel in 1925.  It was a substantial success and was adapted as a fifty minute silent film, released on Christmas Day of the same year and starring Strongheart, a doggy rival to Rin Tin Tin, and, in a sixth-billed part, a 24-year-old Clark Gable.  

Rufus is said to have based his canine hero on his own German shepherd police dog.  I wish I had a picture of them!

The next year Rufus published another dog novel, Whelps of the Wind (this time the dog democratically is a "mongrel," as they used to say, i.e., a pooch made of mixed breeds).  This book was well-received too, although no film was made from it.  Perhaps Strongheart held out for more dough--dog biscuit dough, that is.

The first actual film based on a Rufus King story was an espionage film set in the Panama Canal, called The Silent Command.  The film, which starred none other than Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in his first American film role (the lead villain, natch), opened in August 1923 and was quite well-received.  Was this one of the early Argosy serials originally?

It was not until 1927 Rufus published his first actual crime novel, the aforementioned Murder De Luxe, having torn up his third dog novel after reading Gladys Bronwyn Stern's novel The Dark Gentleman, which the deemed the last word in dog tales.  He followed Murder De Luxe in 1928 with The Fatal Kiss Mystery, which was really a Wellsian light sci-fi story masquerading as crime fiction.

Bela Lugosi as a wicked wireless operator out to blow up the Panama Canal in
Rufus King's The Silent Command (1923)

Finally in 1929, a year after the death of his father from pneumonia at the age of 62, Rufus, whom the will of his father had hedged in with a trust fund and trustee, published his first Lieutenant Valcour detective novel, Murder by the Clock.  It was a huge success and set his career firmly on the course of mystery fiction.  The leap in sophistication from his previous books is indeed remarkable.  

What critics liked so much about Murder by the Clock was not its puzzle plot per se but the characters with which Rufus peopled it.  Unbeknownst to critics, they had discovered a crime novel, a serious story about people impacted by a crime.  In my view Murder by the Clock stands as one of the great American mystery debuts of that year, alongside Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest and Ellery Queen's The Roman Hat Mystery, and is something of a compromise between them.  

It's too bad Rufus King was one of the mystery writers whom Julian Symons reread, when writing the first edition of Bloody Murder in the early Seventies, and damningly deemed to be not "anything like as good as I remembered" from adolescent days. In truth it's exactly the sort of thing that Symons should have liked: a dark story of warped personalities, morbid psychology and aggressively presented sexuality, with the rapid narrative pace of Red Harvest, one of Symons' favorite crime novels (and rightly so).

This was the first Rufus King novel which I ever read, about twenty years ago, and I'll admit at the time I didn't like it, being in my full "Humdrum" phase in those days.  It seemed too thinly plotted to me.  

On recently reading the novel, however, I thought it simply superb.  John Norris at Pretty Sinister Blog reviewed it over a decade ago, back in January 2012, which seems like practically ancient history now.  My first Rufus King rave, of Rufe's third Valcour crime novel Murder by Latitudecame later that year, and Mike Grost at his mystery fiction website also posted a good deal about Rufus King around that time.  I think all that led to Rufus getting republished in 2014, although unfortunately I was never involved with that particular publisher.

I quote the conclusion of John's review below, because he really nails it to the masthead, as it were:

Murder by the Clock is unlike any other American mystery I have read from this era.  Ture, there is detection and the policeman hero is doggedly determined to being in the villain of the piece, but the emphasis here seems to be less on the mechanics of the criminal investigation and more on the after effects of the crime as it alters the lives of the Endicott household.  In this respect King's novel is far more modern than one would expect from his era.  He may have been one of the earliest writers to explore the real drama inherent in crime and its aftermath rather than exploiting a fictional murder as a mere puzzle entertainment.  

 a natty Rude King in the 1930s
bronzed and burnished by many an idle
summer spent in Florida and Bermuda

There's a great deal of truth here, a'though I always recoil from the term "mere puzzle/s."  Indeed, that's one of the chapter titles, ironically used, in my books Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, a defense of the classic, puzzle-oriented mystery, which was published in 2012 as well.  

I love me a murder puzzle with meticulously detailed detection and I truly believe a good puzzle is never "mere," but there's something truly thrilling with Murder by the Clock in seeing such a mature embodiment of the crime novel way back in 1929, one that doesn't have to resort to thuggish brutal violence like Red Harvest (good as it is) to score its points about human nature.  Rufus King is writing about a much more sophisticated New York milieu than Hammett's Wild West extravaganza, but his perception of the horrid darkness often found at the core of the human heart is just as acute as Hammett's.

Rufus King reminds me a great deal of another handsome and sophisticated gay vintage mystery writer, one who will be very familiar to readers of this blog: Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987), who over three decades wrote crime fiction, both with his partner Richard Wilson Webb and, after the two men broke up, solo.  

Although he was a full generation removed from Rufus, Hugh Wheeler and Rufe are rather similar writers.  Both men were precocious college students possessed of copious amounts of personal charisma, both were extensive travelers and lovers of the life aquatic, and both took writing seriously as an art form and were desirous in their mystery fiction of doing something more than mystifying their readers.  Both men had multiple films adapted from their works too.

Hugh Wheeler ultimately abandoned crime writing for theater and film writing, publishing his last crime novel in 1965, although Seventies works like the stage musical Sweeney Todd and the black comedy film Something for Everyone certainly have criminality in them.  Rufus King first abandoned his series sleuth Lieutenant Valcour after eleven books in 1939 and then left long form crime writing altogether in 1951, although he continued publishing short crime stories, primarily in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, throughout the Fifties and Sixties, up to his death in 1966.  But they both left sizeable and important mid-century crime fiction legacies and there's no doubt in my mind that they were two of the genre's most significant and distinctive authors.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Rufus King: American Crime Queen

This photo was taken in 1920 when Rufus King
was 27 and serving as senior wireless operator
on the steamship Annetta, licensed to the
Atlantic Fruit Company. 

Blonde, blue-eyed and fair-complexioned,
"Rufe" stood five feet six and a half inches. 
His relatively diminutive stature and 
delicate, fair features made him a natural for 
"drag" roles in the Drama Association at Yale,
where he was a student between 1910 and 1914,
despite a strong chin with an evident cleft in
some photos.  His serious expression above
belies his penchant for wit and drollery in his 
days with the Dramat and later, among a select
group of friends that included Yale classmate
and Oscar-nominated actor Monty Wooley.

If Ellery Queen was the King of Golden Age American detective fiction, was Rufus King its Queen?  I will be looking at this question over several blog posts.

Rufus King was born in New York City on January 3, 1893 to Thomas Armstrong King, a doctor, and his wife Amelia Sarony Lambert, a daughter of photographer Theodore Sarony Lambert and great niece of Napoleon Sarony, the most renowned photographer in late nineteenth century America.  

Thomas King was one of two sons of dry goods merchant Washington King and his wife Maria Louisa Hill, of the small town off Mooers in northeastern New York, near the Canadian border.  They were a couple whose roots ran deep in the rocky soil of New England.  Both of their their sons, however, were exceptional young men who would end up denizens of the cosmopolitan big city. 

Their elder son, Charles Francis King, was a full decade older than Thomas (who was born in 1866) and he turned out to have rather a strange and interesting history, but more on that later. 

In the immediate term Charles graduated in 1880 from Lehigh University of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and became a prominent mining engineer, said to have been associated in several ventures with iron and steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  He likely was the same Charles Francis King who was once employed as a chemist with the Pennsylvania Steel company.

Thomas King graduated from Lehigh University and later, in 1888, the University of Vermont College of Medicine at Burlington.  He practiced medicine in New York City and on November 24, 1890 married Amelia Sarony Lambert at St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church.  After the marriage the young couple resided with Amelia's widowed mother Margaret at her home at 141 Lexington Avenue, along with Amelia's brother and sister Thomas and Nora, both artists and actors.  (There were a couple of other Lambert daughters as well, but apparently they married.)

Thomas King's own mother and father had passed away in 1883 and 1885 respectively and he was, well, estranged from his brother.  It appears that he basically was adopted by the Lamberts, or Sarony-Lamberts as they were sometimes called.  Or perhaps one should say they adopted him.

the King house at Rouses Point, overlooking Lake Champlain

In Rouses Point, a small New York town located on Lake Champlain, a couple of miles south of the Canadian border and but a short distance from his home town of Mooers, Thomas King bought the old Ezra Thurber house, a lovely porticoed brick Georgian home built in 1818 that was said once to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad that American slaves traveled to freedom in Canada before the Civil War.  It is also claimed President James Monroe stayed there, though I don't believe he was running away form anything.

Amelia and her and Thomas' only child Rufus, born about two years after their marriage, spent quite a bit of the year at the house at Rouses Point, along with Amelia's mother Maggie and her siblings Thomas and Nora.  Thomas King, a successful New York doctor, presumably spent much of his time making money in the City by ministering to the medical needs of well-off patients.  All of them, barring Rufus himself, are interred in the family vault at Rouses Point.  King must have been a successful physician to support all this; interestingly the great American playwright Eugene O'Neill mentions consulting Dr. King about his nerve pain in 1920, the year that saw the premiere of his hit play The Emperor Jones.  

Rufus King's aunt
Nora Sarony Lambert (1885-1934),
seventeen years younger than his
mother Amelia Sarony Lambert

Evidently King converted to Catholicism when he married into the Sarony-Lambert clan, Amelia's parents both being of the Catholic faith, her father Theodore being a French Canadian and her mother Margaret, or Maggie, Irish. Theodore followed in the footsteps of his famous uncle, Napoleon Sarony, taking up photography; but at one point earlier in his life he owned a wax museum in Montreal, filled with "life-size models of celebrities."  (This might well have given Rufus King the notion of the "murder rooms" in his suspense thriller Museum Piece No. 13; see my review here.)

However, Theodore Lambert died in 1888 at the age of 45 and his widow Maggie does not appear to have come from a well-off background.  (She may have been employed as a housekeeper in 1860.)  Marriage for her eldest daughter to promising young Dr. King may have been a godsend.  

Neither Thomas nor Nora appear ever to have married and to have lived rather dilettante existences, falling back on their wealthy brother-in-law when "resting."  Thomas died in 1920 and Nora 14 years later in 1935; both, oddly, were the same age, only 49, at their deaths.

It's not surprising that the Sarony-Lamberts emphasized for all it was worth their connection to Napoleon Sarony, who died at the age of 75 in 1896 when Amelia was 28 years old and Rufus but 3, for Sarony was, according to the New York Metropolitan Museum, "an acknowledged master of celebrity photographs" who "succeeded Matthew Brady as the best-known portrait photographer in New York."  Indeed, says the Broadway Photographs website, doing the Met one (or more) better: "From 1870 until his death in 1896, Napoleon Sarony was deemed the premier portrait photographer of the United States, and one of the greatest in the world."

He photographed oodles and oodles of celebrities, including, in some of their most iconic photos, Oscar Wilde and Nikola Tesla, and others like Mark Twain, William Tecumseh Sherman, actress Sarah Bernhardt and actor Joseph Jefferson (grandfather of mystery writer Jefferson Farjeon) and bodybuilder Eugen Sandow.  I'll pause to show some of these immediately below.

Oscar Wilde

Eugen Sandow

Joseph Jefferson

Napoleon Sarony selfie

Nikola Tesla

Thomas and Amelia King sent their privileged son Rufus to Yale University, where he, a true Renaissance man, excelled on the rowing team (coxswain), in creative writing and as the female lead for several years in plays staged by the all-male Yale Dramatic Association, including both serious dramatic works and campy musical farces scripted by a notably talented classmate, the future popular songwriter Cole Porter.  I've written more about King's drag performances in this Crimereads article.  Below are some more photos of King from his Yale days, some of which weren't used at Crimereads.

Rufus King's Yale senior photo, 1914

Rufus as scheming maidservant 
Tanya  in Leo Tolstoy's play
The Fruits of Culture (1889).
Tolstoy died the previous year to the Yale
Dramat's performance of the play in 1911.

Rufus (left) and a classmate on the Yale Dramat

Rufus King at the Yale Dramat, lower right corner (second row).  To his left is the student
he sat next to in the above photo.  In the upper left corner is Cole Porter.
When he graduated from Yale in 1914, Rufus was supposed to matriculate at Columbia University Law School, but Rufus, as we shall see in part two, had other inclinations.  The straight and narrow path would not be for him.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

How Queer Is Classic Mystery? Perhaps It's a Question of Suspense!

Was there a "queer influence" in classic mystery and, if so, how significant was it?  And what was it?  I have identified over forty LGBTQ, or possibly LGTBQ, vintage crime writers born between 1859 and 1927, from Fergus Hume to Marijane Meaker, the last of whom, at the age of 95, is still with us. 

Still part of the problem with this exercise is the hold which the closet held over people in these days.  Coming out as queer could mean, if not jail time, at the least personal disgrace and economic ruin.  Surprise, surprise, almost none of these people ever came out publicly, barring Meaker, Patricia Highsmith (a onetime partner of Meaker) and a few other people who survived into the post-Stonewall era. 

In 1987 Hugh Wheeler likely died from AIDS complications (as far as I know he was the only vintage crime writer to die as a result of AIDS), less than two years after the demise of actor Rock Hudson from AIDS shook up the country.  Hugh never did come out, although he lived successively and intimately with two men for over half a century, remaining closeted from the straight world to the end. 

In the United Kingdom one of the most notable gay male vintage crime writers, Rupert Croft-Cooke, was forcibly outed when he was victimized in a disgraceful "lavender scare" prosecution in the mid-1950s.  However, Richard Hull probably was gay (if anyone has any evidence one way or the other, I would love to see it), as unquestionably were CHB Kitchin and Beverley Nichols, all of whom made interesting contributions to the mystery field.  

Academic GDH Cole, despite being married was sexually and emotionally attracted to his own sex, something which his own wife, Margaret, writes about with marvelous dispassion in her biography of Cole.  His detective novel The Death of a Millionaire (1925) is one of the queerest detective novels extant.  

On the other side of gender coin, prominent UK mystery writer Mary Fitt was a lesbian who lived with her female partner for three decades and it seems likely that Gladys Mitchell was and possibly Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh as well, certainly an impressive quartet.  Surely Joyce Porter was a lesbian too?  Nancy Spain was one of England's most famous lesbians, an out-but-not-out celebrity queer, but her impact on crime fiction is decidedly eccentric, to say the least.

In the United States there were, aside from Patricia Highsmith, another once very prominent mid-century crime writer, Ruth Fenisong, who was lesbian, as well as that interesting couple who comprised the short-lived author Roger Scarlett, Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, but the most notable group of queer American vintage crime writers was all-male (four of whom, oddly, lived at some point in Philadelphia, apparently without ever having met each other, aside from the couple Webb and Wheeler): 

Rufus King, a sophisticated New Yorker who was one of most successful crime writers of the Thirties and Forties

Todd Downing, an Oklahoma Choctaw who made a great splash in the Thirties but then retired from writing

Milton Propper, a Philadelphian who likewise enjoyed success in the Thirties

George Bagby (Aaron Marc Stein), a tremendously prolific mystery writer over half a century

and last, but certainly not least,

Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, who wrote together (and apart) as Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge and were very popular and highly praised

Stein is kind of hard to get a handle on for me, because he wrote so much and I have barely sampled his work.  He published over 100 crime novels, making him one of the big leaguers, at least in terms of output.  He strikes me as more imitative than original, but perhaps that goes with the territory when you write that much (although John Street and Edgar Wallace strike me as more unique).

Propper was for about fifteen years the most notable American student of Freeman Wills Crofts.  (There had to be one!)

Downing was an "atmospheric" crime writer, a great admirer of John Dickon Carr (although his favorite crime writer was Rufus King), but like Carr he adhered to classic detection and never really moved into the suspense group.

That leaves Webb/Wheeler and King, who seem to me to share quite a bit of affinity with each other and together I think can be seen as having established a sort of queer domestic suspense school.  If a school can have only three teachers!

Both King and Webb (Wheeler didn't join in until 1935/36) started out pretty early in the vintage period, King in 1929 (discounting a couple of early efforts) and Webb in 1931.  Both were committed to the plotting mechanics of detection, although atmospherics and character were important in their work  (Rufus King from the get-go, Webb more so after he became Webb-Wheeler).

In the Forties, however, King dropped his series detective, Lieutenant Valcour, and devoted himself to non-series work that increasingly put dramatic emphasis on suspense.  Books from the Forties like Design in Evil, The Deadly Dove, Museum Piece No. 13, Lethal Lady, The Case of the Redoubled Cross, are all suspense tales with women protagonists.  

Although Webb and Wheeler never eliminated the formal puzzle aspect from their books, they moved as well more and more in the direction of suspense in the Forties and Fifties in their Patrick Quentin novels, which Wheeler wrote solo from the late Forties onward.  Wheeler's Patrick Quentin novels from Black Widow (1952) onward are all model examples of domestic suspense, it strikes me, although with a rather more sophisticated milieu than most of his feminine counterparts.  There's a sometime series detective, Lieutenant Trant, but he is seen by the characters as more of a menace and he acts more as a catalyst for emotional turmoil.  

I think it can be said that Rufus King and and Richard Webb/Hugh Wheeler played rather important roles in the development of the American crime novel over the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.  Atmospherics and suspense tend to be associated with vintage American women crime writers, from Mary Roberts Rinehart, Leslie Ford and Mignon Eberhart to Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Fenwick and Margaret Millar (the latter Canadian-American), but King, Webb and Wheeler contributed a distinctly queer male element, giving women characters great scope and interest beyond what most straight male writers afforded them.  (Cornell Woolrich might be included here, but I remain unsatisfied in my mind as to whether he was really gay, as you can see in my Crimereads article here.  It's entirely possible that the most famous queer American male vintage crime writer may not in fact have been homosexual, although he was, well, if not queer decidedly odd, to be sure.)  

In their work we find something uniquely different from both the hard-boiled and "Humdrum" mysteries that are generally associated with male crime writers, yet also not quite duplicative of feminine domestic suspense.   Yet it's also not overt queer crime fiction either, with explicitly queer characters.  I don't believe any of these men ever produced a single piece of crime writing where the word "homosexual'" appears.

Call it what you will, it's queer-authored crime fiction from the era of the closet.  And it's some of the best and most remarkable crime fiction of the twentieth century.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Nobody Likes a Critic? Julian Symons Versus His Crime Writing Colleagues

"The fact is that ninety per cent of crime stories, mystery stories, thrillers, are written by people with no feeling for language, place or character."--Julian Symons

In defending his bluntness as a mystery critic, Julian Symons was up front with his view that criticism without, well, criticism, if you catch my drift, was meaningless.  In the third (1992) edition of his genre survey Bloody Murder, he wrote:

I felt, and feel today," irritation at the blandness with which this occupation [newspaper/periodical mystery criticism] is carried on.  I like praise for my crime stories as much as the next man or woman, but how can one take seriously warm words written about one's own new book, when the same crime column contains equally warm words about half-a-dozen other books, some of which are revealed at a cursory glance as being inferior to the standard article.  Such praise may please publishers, but cancels itself out for a writer.

knife out

Symons avowed that as a mystery critic, "I had always reviewed crime stories with the freedom I used in writing about other books, recording triumphs and disasters with candour."  Unfortunately as a founding member of the Crime Writers Association, his forthright (and often negative) reviews of other crime writers provoked rancor among members, some of whom were

indignant at what they considered a kind of treachery.  There was an even an abortive move to expel me until such time as I wrote helpful rather than harmful reviews.

Symons seemed baffled by this attitude, explaining: "It is my experience that you can say in print a poet is no good and he will slap you on the shoulder at next meeting and say what a fool you are, but if you make a similar comment about a crime writer he may say nothing but will be deeply wounded."

Due to this peculiar sensitivity among crime writers, who apparently were more desirous of stabbing Symons' back than slapping it, or maybe just slapping his face, Symons belatedly deemed it "a good idea to give up crime reviewing."

In 1994, two years after the publication of the third and final edition of Bloody Murder, Symons, who would pass away later that year, was even more explicit about all this in the introduction to his essay collection Criminal Practices.  Indeed, he named names, or at least one name.  Speaking of his dozen-year long tenure reviewing crime fiction at the Sunday Times, Symons commented: "For a crime column to appear twice a month in a paper was unprecedented."  This statement is flatly incorrect, but let's move on to the good stuff:

I wrote the column for more than a decade, reviewed the whole flood of crime stories that came into the paper (reviewers usually only get a small selection), and so read thousands of books in the genre during that period.  But "read" needs inverted commas, for many of the books that piled up on my desk were ill-written, poorly crafted rubbish.  Twenty pages were often enough to tell me I should not be reviewing the book and when two or three others by the same writer had proved equally inept I was likely to give later work no more than a cursory glance to see if some ingenuity of plot went a little way towards redeeming the execrable writing.

The experience was instructive.  Until I was threatened by burial under this mass of rubbish I had not realized the full weight of it.  The fact is that ninety per cent of crime stories, mystery stories, thrillers, are written by people with no feeling for language, place or character.  Once I had understood that, there followed a desire to make distinctions in my column, to abandon the alkaline flatness of most writing about crime stories in favour of something sharper, sometimes even picric [a bitter yellow acid].  The good should be praised, the eccentric tolerated, the bad excoriated, especially if a well-regarded name was on the title page."

What could be more reasonable?

Yet to his evident surprise, Symons found that  

The approach did not make me universally loved.  Margery Allingham asked that her books should be kept out of my hands, and at the Crime Writers Association a motion was proposed (though decisively defeated) that I should be expelled until such time as I understood a critic's duty to be helpful towards all writers.

You can sense the scorn in this passage, but I must admit that Symons comes off as a babe in the woods to me in not realizing he might ruffle feathers with such reviews.  I myself have been criticized, ironically, for criticizing Symons over the years.  One fan has accused me of desiring to make poor Julian "my bitch," to quote my critic's colorful language.  Presumably Symons could have taken the criticism better than his fan.  One would hope so, at least.

Certainly esteemed mystery writers HRF Keating and Edmund Crispin both wrote tremendously highly of Symons.  Margery Allingham, on the other hand, seems to have admired neither Symons nor his crime writing.  When she published the last book that she ever completed, The Mind Readers (1965), she wrote that the novel, which she called an AAA (Allingham Adult Adventure) signified her aim to 

bust out of the AWFUL Gollancz/Symons/MWA stale blood and fumbling sex blanket bath and have FUN again

Allingham referenced here as well the publisher Victor Gollancz, with whom Symons was closely associated, and the Mystery Writers of America, who had awarded Symons the best novel Edgar in 1961 for The Progress of a Crime.  Guess what: Margery's books, despite receiving praise from many of those print critics, never netted her an Edgar or CWA Dagger.  Maybe they felt that her sales were her reward.

On the whole Symons was kinder to the crime novels of Michael Gilbert, another colleague from both the CWA and the Detection Club, although Symons, classifying the author as an "entertainer," chided that in his crime writing "Gilbert shrinks from digging very deep [into social questions].

Two years after Symons's death in November 1994 at the age of 82, Gilbert still hardy in November 1996 at the age of 84, allowed himself a little venting at Symons, writing of his, Gilbert's, character Chief Inspector Hazlerigg in the introduction to The Man Who Hated Banks (1997), a collection of his short stories by Crippen & Landru:

He was what you might call a standard pattern policeman, and I have a feeling that the late Julian Symons would have considered him to be a "humdrum."  It was with this adjective, you may remember, that he insulted many of the leading lights in the crime story field of the early years of this century.

I find the thought encouraging.

Such an elegant, understated rebuke. (Some might have said, "Up yours, Jules!")  Perhaps it was one which Symons merited after so many years of talking down to the vast majority of his colleagues, like a divinely-inspired Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Crime Fiction Commandments in his hands.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Julian Symons' 100 Best Crime Stories Revisited

Here is a link to Julian Symons' 100 Best Crime Stories, from William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) to Quiet Horror by Stanley Ellin (1957).  See for yourself what you think of the list.  It includes 12 books from the Twenties and 25 books from the Thirties (confirming my view that everyone talks about the two decades as the Golden Age of detective fiction, but they like the Thirties much better), as well as 16 from the Forties and 23 from the Fifties, for a breakdown of 37 from the Twenties and Thirties and 39 from the Forties and Fifties.  24 are pre-GA. A fan of Victorian/Edwardian crime fiction might argue that the first 123 are underrepresented compared to the last 37.

From the Twenties and Thirties we find a pretty comprehensive mix of detection and thrills, with some crime novels thrown in.  When we get to the Forties, however, classic detection very much moves to the back seat, with only a few titles really qualifying.  The same is true of the Fifties.  This would certainly be in keeping with Symons' view, expressed in his genre history Bloody Murder, that writers began moving more and more away from classic detection at that time.

the genial critic at work
Michael Caine in The Ipress File (1965)
the classic film version of one of  
critic and crime writer
Julian Symons' favorite Sixties novels

Symons had some interesting things to say about this list not long before his death in the introduction to his essay collection Criminal Practices, published in 1994:

Early in 1958 I received a note from Leonard Russell, literary editor of the Sunday Times, asking if I would like to become the paper's crime reviewer, writing two pieces a month for L600 a year.  A couple of years earlier I had ended a decade-long stint writing a book column for the Manchester Evening News because I felt myself suffering form what be called reviewer's fatigue..  But the prospect of writing about crime stories and nothing else was attractive, the pay was fair or even handsome for the late fifties, and I said yes....For a crime column to appear twice a month in a paper was unprecedented.  [Except it wasn't--TPT]

Symons details how the idea of his "Hundred Best" came up:

[Leonard Russell] invited me to choose my "Hundred Best" crime stories and write a piece about each of them, promising that they would be handsomely published in the paper.  So they were: but it was typical of Leonard that he should improve upon his original idea, suggesting that I enlist the help of critics, historians and other writers in the genre when making the final choice.  Accordingly, a number of selections were made by Agatha Christie, Cyril hare, C. P. Snow,. Nicholas Blake, Rex Stout, Assistant Commissioner R./ L. Jackson of the CID, Leonard's wife Dilys and several critics.

That's a lot of hands in the pot!  How many of Symons' Hundred Best were actually chosen by Symons then?  Symons doesn't say, but apparently it was quite a few; and he was, quite rightly, a bit miffed: 

The books they chose were often those I would have picked myself, but this was hardly my Hundred Best, although I reluctantly agree to what I felt was an adulteration of a Symons-pure selection....I felt the list would have been more coherent if the choice had been made by a single person--me.

Symons revealed that he had been pressured as well into picking more books that actually were in print.  All in all, it was not the list he would have wanted and as his tastes evolved over the decade, it appeared to him even worse in retrospect:

Looking again at that Hundred Best I blush for some of my choices.  The Pit-Prop Syndicate, The Bellamy Trial, the Nursemaid Who Disappeared, The Pleasantries of Old Quong, Venetian Bird, A Case to Answer, Above the Dark Circus--how many readers would be able to put names to the authors of all these books, let alone claim to have read them.  And these titles were not pressed on me, except in one or two cases like [Nursemaid], which I chose rather than another Philip Macdonald title because it was in print,.  If I were playing the agreeable Hundred Best parlour game today, however, I doubt if anything by Philip Macdonald would make the grade.  Nor would several other writers then included now find a place.  Time deals more hardly with crime stories than other fiction, in part because it so insistently embodies the manners and morality of its period, even though on a superficial level.

No doubt some of many now-regretted inclusions were due to my imperceptiveness, but more to the point is the fact that in the fifties the crime story was still comparatively in its infancy.  In terms of characterization, attention to forensic detail and police procedure, and true to the lives and language of people below the upper and middle classes, the best British crime stories were immeasurably superior to those written now.  thins developed differently in the United States with the emergence of writers through the pulp magazines, although the results were little nearer to reality.  Chandler, and even Hammett, took a romantic view of their principal characters, and if Ross Macdonald avoided such romanticism in his later books, it was at the cost of making his detective Lew Archer a conduit rather than a character.  

Of course there are few gains without losses, and it is true that not many stories nowadays compare, in the cunning an deceptiveness of plotting, with the best of Christie and Sayer, Anthony Berkeley, John Dickson Carr or Ellery queen.  Such cunning is an integral part of many fine criem stories, just as the plot (neglected or despised in modern fiction) is a vital element in all of them.  Yet often these plot devices were so artificial, so nearly incredible, that they made the books containing them no more than entertaining verbal or visual puzzles to which some kind of story was attached. 

Perhaps also I was lucky to have been reviewing in a decade that saw not merely a changed approach in the crime story, but also development in subtlety, sophistication and style.  In it le Carre and Deighton merged as the first thriller writers comparable with Eric Ambler, and the sixties saw the flowering of Patricia Highsmith's extraordinary talent, and the beginnings although not the best of P. D. James and Ruth Rendell [though Symons neglected to include either James or Rendell in the 1972 edition of Bloody Murder].

It's a shame, given the dodgy genesis of Symons' "Hundred Best" and his own huge preference for crime fiction from the Sixties, that Symons never updated his list and did a Hundred Best in the Seventies or Eighties, like his friend, genial crime writer HRF Keating.  One gathers that the earlier selections would have dropped like flies.  How many of the selections were even Symons' choices in the first place, rather than those of, say, Agatha Christie or Rex Stout?  One can make a guess from books he highly praised in Bloody Murder, but one can never know for certain.  All one really knows is that Symons must have seen c. 1960 to c. 1990, say, as the Golden Age of the Crime Novel.  (In his 1994 introduction he even sounds somewhat jaded with earlier hard-boiled authors.)  

By the 90s, with the rise of violent and clinical American crime fiction, things seems to have gotten too "realistic" for him.  He condemned the "strip cartoon writing" of James Ellroy and "sado-masochistic" violence of Thomas Harris, for example, while also decrying modern academic writers who, as he witheringly put it, "are now falling all over themselves to agree that crime stores are as interesting as any other kind of fiction.  These academics, many of them American but to be found many countries, duck out of using the word value.  It is rather the social significance of crime writers' attitudes toward feminism, racism, homosexuality, the police, that concern them."  Symons dismissed these academics as "popularising Philistines," adding:

Between those like me who want to show that some work done in a popular form can transcend the form's limitations and those who applaud the form itself because a lot of people see, read or listen to it, there is no ground on which to meet.

With these last fighting words, Symons sounds almost like one of those Anglo-Indian majors from Golden Age detective fiction condemning those long-haired, modern Bohemian types.  Which shows that if you live long enough (Symons was in his eighties at the time), you eventually become reactionary, in the sense that you find so many new things you want react against.  The cheerfully reactionary Edmund Crispin (nearly a decade younger than Symons, oddly) may have thought mystery writing's good old days were in the Thirties and Forties, Symons found them in the Sixties and Seventies and some of the Eighties.

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Progress of a Crime Writer: Julian Symons's Crime Fiction, 1945 to 1996

Although he only published his first crime novel at the age of 32, Julian Symons lived to enjoy a crime writing career of nearly half-a-century.  Two criminous volumes, The Man Who Hated Television and Other Stories and A Sort of Virtue, a final novel, were published after his death, so Symons sadly wasn't around to "enjoy" those.  Then, over a dozen years after his death, Crippen & Landru published one last collection of the author's Frances Quarles short stories, appropriately titled The Detections of Francis Quarles (2006).  The total tallies to 29 crime novels and five volumes of short stories, or 34 books, 33 of them published over a 51 year run.  That's not as prolific as some longtime crime writers, like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, not to mention John Street, but it's no small potatoes, for sure!  

It should be remembered as well that over that time Symons, a remarkable autodidact, published biographies, histories, memoirs, essays collections and other works and reviewed rafts and rafts of books.  In terms of his prolificity and versatility as a writer, he rather resembles the slightly older Rupert Croft-Cooke, aka mystery writer Leo Bruce (1903-1979), though unlike Croft-Cooke, he never wrote, to my knowledge, a "straight" novel with no crime element.

Symons wrote his first crime novel in 1939, but it wasn't published until about a month after the end of the Second Word War.  Thus he doesn't qualify as a Golden Age crime writer but rather a Silver Age one--and of Silver Age crime writers he was one of the most significant and influential.  I consider, by the by, that the Golden Age of detective fiction lasted from roughly 1920 to 1940, give or take a few years, the Silver Age of detective fiction rather longer, from about 1941 to 1985.  I suppose 1986 to 2010, say, was the Bronze Age, then, though it feels like the last dozen years or so has been something improved, as far as classic detective fiction and attitudes towards it go.

Symons was significant both for what he preached, in his selective and partisan genre history, Bloody Murder, and what he practiced, in his own crime writing.  Today I want to give a short consideration to his 29 crime novels.  What follows is a list, with my star rating:

  1. The Immaterial Murder Case 1945 **
  2. A Man Named Jones 1947 **
  3. Bland Beginning 1949 ***
  4. The 31st of February 1950 *****
  5. The Broken Penny 1953 ***
  6. The Narrowing Circle 1954 ****
  7. The Paper Chase, aka Bogue's Fortune 1956 ***
  8. The Colour of Murder 1957 *****
  9. The Gigantic Shadow, aka the Pipe Dream 1958 **
  10. The Progress of a Crime 1960 *****
  11. The Killing of Francie Lake, aka The Plain Man 1962 ***
  12. The End of Solomon Grundy 1964 *****
  13. The Belting Inheritance 1965 ***
  14. The Man Who Killed Himself 1967 ****
  15. The Man Whose Dreams Came True 1968 *
  16. The Man Who Lost His Wife 1970 **
  17. The Players and the Game 1972 *****
  18. The Plot Against Roger Rider 1973 ***
  19. A Three Pipe Problem 1975 **
  20. The Blackheath Poisonings 1978 ****
  21. Sweet Adelaide 1980 ***
  22. The Detling Murders, aka The Detling Secret 1982 **** 
  23. The Name of Annabel Lee 1983 *
  24. The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple 1985 ***
  25. The Kentish Manor Murders 1988 **
  26. Death's Darkest Face 1990 *****
  27. Something Like a Love Affair 1992 ***
  28. Playing Happy Families 1994 **
  29. A Sort of Virtue 1996 (posthumous) **

Symons' most important (if not necessarily most enjoyable) works, in my view, are The 31st of February, The Colour of Murder (CWA Gold Dagger), The Progress of a Crime (Edgar), The End of Solomon Grundy, The Players and the Game and Death's Darkest Face, the latter three comparatively less recognized than the first three.

Also very good in my eyes are The Narrowing Circle, The Man Who Killed Himself, The Blackheath Poisonings and The Detling Secret.  In fact I'm tempted to bump Blackheath up to five stars, but there are some rather notable plotting issues with this one which bother me, sorry!

His worst books in my view are his first two, along with The Gigantic Shadow, The Man Whose Dreams Came True, The Man Who Lost His Wife, A Three Pipe Problem, The Name of Annabel Lee, The Kentish Manor Murders and his last two.  My candidate for worst Symons would be either The heavily ironic and drearily depressive Man Whose Dreams Came True (a book to commit suicide by) or Annabel Lee, surely one of the most embarrassing attempts by a a septuagenarian crime writer to haul himself abreast of modern times.  (It's much worse than his beloved Patricia Highsmith's People Who Knock on the Door, which came out about the same time.)

I may bump some of the three-star ones up or down on rereading.  I read all of Symons' books in roughly the period from about 2001 to 2006.  I might well like some of them more (or less) now.  Martin Edwards says the Roger Rider's twist is "gasp-inducing," and I can't even recall it!  So you never know.  I see Martin has been rereading Symons' books too, no doubt in preparation for his own current one, and I was glad to see he had mostly forgotten some of them too and that it wasn't just me.

Also highly recommended is Nick Fuller's webpage on Symons.  I just looked at it last night and was struck by how much basic agreement (although he is harder on specific titles) that we are in with each other on the matter of old Jules.  I think his last ten books, published between 1975 and 1996, definitely show deterioration compared to the first nineteen, published between 1945 and 1973 (the patch in the Eighties between his Victorian period mysteries and the late Barbara Vineish/Ruth Rendellian stuff is pretty dire, but overall he had a very interesting life of crime.  (I've been using that phrase on my blog for a decade.)  More on it soon!

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Talking About Detective Fiction--Out of Both Sides of His Mouth? Julian Symons' Evolution as a Crime Fiction Critic

He said what? 
British crime writer and critic 
Julian Symons (1912-1994)
Most of the generation of writers that produced the Golden Age of detective fiction, that brief era when the puzzle plot purportedly reigned supreme, had departed not only from the field but from life itself when, a half-century ago in the Spring of 1972, British crime writer and critic Julian Symons published Bloody Murder, his landmark study of mystery, detective and crime fiction--there is a difference among them, to be sure--and the first survey of the murder and misdeeds genre since Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, published three decades earlier in 1941.  What made Bloody Murder significant in a way that Haycraft’s book, notable as it was, had never been, is indicated by Symon’ subtitle, From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel.  As one of the contemporary reviewers of Bloody Murder put it:

[Symons] accepts that fiction’s criminal records are primarily entertainments but contends that inside this limit there is a point at which escapist and serious writing converge.  He defines this as the crime novel.  Here, puzzles take second place to characterisation: the concern is not with murder but its consequences and it is not simply man who is indicted but society itself….Not everyone will accept the thesis—the diehards will insist that the puzzle is all—but few will be able to resist the cause.

            In writing Bloody Murder, Julian Symons wanted to isolate and quarantine from the crime novel the “frivolous” but infectiously entertaining detective story, which in his view had for too long hampered, if not prevented, the genre from being taken, and taking itself, seriously.  By his own admission Symons wanted both practitioners and public alike to appreciate that “[i]n the highest reaches of the crime novel, it is possible to create works of [literary] art,” if admittedly ones “of a slightly flawed kind” on account of their intrinsic dependence on “sensationalism,” which went back to the crime novel’s roots in the days of the Victorian sensation novel.  Even in superior crime novelists, Symons avowed, there still was something “that demands the puzzle element in a book, or at least the element of uncertainty and suspense, as a diabetic demands insulin.”  Symons did not say, as the consciously highbrow mystery-hating critic Edmund Wilson doubtlessly would have, “as a drug addict needs a fix,” although it actually would have been a more accurate expression of the point which Symons was making: that there was something slightly seamy in all forms of fictional mystery mongering.

            1972 seemed a propitious year indeed for finally putting the “detective story” back in its proper place as mere entertainment and apotheosizing the serious novel of crime (note that Symons does not dignify the “detective story” with the word “novel”), as the generation which had produced so many prime specimens of the detective novel--I will use the word novel--was passing from the world’s mortal scene.  The review of Bloody Murder quoted above, which appeared in the pages of The Guardian on April 6, 1972, came from the hand of Matthew Coady, successor in the “Criminal Records” crime fiction review column to Anthony Berkeley (under his pen name Francis Iles), who had died just a little over a year earlier, on March 9, 1971.  Along with Agatha Christie, who would pass away less than five years later on January 12, 1976, Berkeley had been all that remained on earth of the original founders of the Detection Club, started in London in 1930 as a social club for eminent practitioners of the fine art of clued murder, as opposed to the purveyors of mere thrills, or the shocker-schlockers, if you will, inheritors of the lowly penny dreadful tradition, like Edgar Wallace, “Sapper” and Sax Rohmer. 

            Then pushing eighty years of age, Anthony Berkeley had steadfastly remained in the reviewing saddle throughout most of 1970.  On October 15 he submitted his final column, which included a review of one of Agatha Christie’s last and least novels, a muddled political thriller, or something, titled Passenger to Frankfurt.  About the lamentable Frankfurt Berkeley had little on point to say (What could one in kindness say?), aside from an unintentionally amusing and characteristically cranky bit of carping: “Of all the idiotic conventions attached to the thriller the silliest is the idea that a car whizzing around a corner at high speed can be aimed at an intended victim who has, quite unseen, stepped off the pavement into the roadway at exactly the right moment.  Mrs. Agatha Christie uses this twice in Passenger to Frankfurt.”  One can almost hear that final triumphant Harrumph! 

            Agatha Christie happily enjoyed a brief Indian summer the next year with her goodish, if by no means great, Miss Marple detective novel Nemesis, but she then published two more mysteries, Elephants Can Remember (1972) and Postern of Fate (1973), which were remarkable only as indicators of the author’s rapidly diminishing powers.  Anthony Berkeley himself had not published a mystery novel in over three decades, having contented himself with reviewing them under his Francis Iles pseudonym.  While there were still a few old timers around plying the clued murder trade with evident zest, like Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes and Gladys Mitchell, their ranks were sadly diminished, like those of Great War veterans at an Armistice Day commemoration.  Even Edmund Crispin, for a few brief years after the war the wunderkind of detective fiction but now an alcoholic walking dead man, struggled, zombie-like, for over a decade to complete a final mystery before his tragic, untimely demise in 1978 at the age of fifty-six. 

            Julian Symons was well aware of all the death and decline going on around him.  He began writing Bloody Murder in 1970 at the relatively youthful age of fifty-eight, after having retired from a decade-long stint as the crime fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times.  (His replacement had been his philosophical opposite Edmund Crispin.)  In his critical magnum opus, which he completed the following year, he predicted this dire fate for the future of the “detective story”: “A declining market.  Some detective stories will continue to be written, but as the old masters and mistresses fade away, fewer and fewer of them will be pleasing to lovers of the Golden Age.” 

            Symons omitted from his study any mention of rising British murder mistresses P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Moyes, Catherine Aird and Anne Morice, all of whom wrote mysteries in the classic puzzler vein and were more than acceptable to “lovers of the Golden Age.”  (Morice, long out-of-print, was republished last year by Dean Street Press.)  The Seventies in fact would see continued success for all five of these authors, particularly James and Rendell, and additional notable practitioners of detective fiction joined the murder muster during the decade, like masters Peter Lovesey and Reginald Hill, both of whom actually had published their first detective novels in 1970, and masters Colin Dexter, Robert Barnard and Simon Brett, who came along but a few years later.  By 1992 a now octogenarian Symons, who was just a couple of years away from his own death, was still doggedly insisting that the market for the detective story “has declined,” although face savingly he added, albeit somewhat confusingly, that “few old-fashioned detective stories are written.”  Did he mean books with country houses, men-about-town, stately butlers, terrified maids, bodies in libraries and other such impedimenta?  Writers like P. D. James and Ruth Rendell hardly had need of those to devise classic detective fiction. 

            Yet “A Postscript for the Nineties,” the valedictory chapter of the third edition of Bloody Murder, was filled with the author’s grim foreboding for crime writing’s future.  In it Symons lamented the sadistic violence of James Ellroy's “strip-cartoon” neo-noir tales like L. A. Confidential (1990) and Thomas Harris’ gruesome serial killer novel The Silence of the Lambs (1989) (“the literary equivalent of a video-nasty”), as well as the startling, disturbing rise of…the criminal cozy.   Seemingly contradicting his prior claim in the same volume that the detective story market had declined, Symons acknowledged, with a certain sense of rue, that the previous reports (mostly his) of the death of detective fiction had in fact been grossly exaggerated, especially in his native country, as evidenced by the success of what he called the cozy mystery (referencing the founding of Malice Domestic in the United States in 1989), which he conflated with puzzle-oriented detective fiction:

In Britain the cosy crime story still flourishes, as it does nowhere else in the world.  We are a long way away from the fairy-tale crime world of Agatha Christie, but a large percentage of the mystery stories in Britain are deliberately flippant about crimes and their outcome….it would seem that the British crime story has always been marked by its lighthearted approach, from the easy jokiness of [E. C. Bentley’s] Philip Trent through the elaborate fancifulness of Michael Innes and Edward [sic] Crispin to the show businesses mysteries of Simon Brett.  A similar refusal to be serious about anything except the detective and the puzzle can be found on the distaff side in a line running from Patricia Wentworth through Margery Allingham and Christianna Brand to half a dozen current exponents of crime as light comedy. 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.

            Symons attempted to distinguish James, Rendell, Lovesey and Hill, long leading lights in what might be termed the Silver Age of detective fiction, from their Golden Age forbears, praising their more “serious” crime novels, like James’ A Taste for Death (1986), where the murderer is revealed two-thirds of the way through the novel.  But the truth is these authors wrote plenteous puzzle-oriented detective fiction (embroidered, to be sure, with lively characterization and social observation), just like their forbears from the Golden Age did.  Today of the aforementioned quartet only Peter Lovesey, now himself an octogenarian, is still alive and active, yet younger writers have carried on with the writing of detective fiction in the classic vein, which has now achieved a popular and critical cachet that it has not enjoyed since the Golden Age itself.  New reprints of Golden Age mysteries, many by authors long out-of-print and forgotten, appear every month.  It becomes more obvious with each passing year that Julian Symons greatly underestimated the public’s passion for “mere puzzles.”

            The dismissiveness which Julian Symons in Bloody Murder expresses toward many prominent writers of vintage detective fiction might startle those unfamiliar with his writing (and perhaps some of those who think they are familiar with it.)  His animadversion against those detective writers, like Freeman Wills Crofts, John Street and Henry Wade, whom he notoriously termed “Humdrum” is well-known and I have written about this at length in my 2012 book Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery, so I will not go into that again here.  Here I want to look at Symons’ disparagement of other Golden Age greats, beginning with one of the towering figures of the era, Dorothy L. Sayers, whom, in the first edition of Bloody Murder, Symons repeatedly disrespects, as I am sure Sayers herself would have seen it, by omitting the “L.” from her name.  (The “L.” is restored in the third edition.)  Symons likes Agatha Christie--though he declares that she was not a good writer from a literary standpoint and that her fictive world was a “fairyland”-- as well as John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Anthony Berkeley (primarily on account of his Francis Iles crime novels), and even S. S. Van Dine, creator of the extraordinarily obnoxious amateur sleuth Philo Vance; yet when it comes to Dorothy L. Sayers he is positively withering in his assessment:

There can be no doubt that by any reasonable standards applied to writing, as distinct from plotting, she is pompous and boring.  Every book contains enormous amounts of padding, in the form of conversations which, although they may have a distinct connection with the plot, are spread over a dozen pages where the point could be covered in as many lines.  This might be forgivable if what was said had some intrinsic interest, but these dialogues are carried on between stereotyped figures…who have nothing at all to say, but only a veiled clue to communicate….[Lord Peter Wimsey] is a caricature of an English aristocrat conceived with an immensely snobbish, loving seriousness….[His knowledge is] asserted rather than demonstrated, and when demonstration is attempted it is sometimes wrong….Add to this the casual anti-Semitism…and you have a portrait of what might be thought an unattractive character.  It should be added that many women readers adore him….[Her later novels] show, with the exception of the lively Murder Must Advertise, an increasing pretentiousness, a dismal sentimentality, and a slackening of the close plotting that had been her chief virtue.  Gaudy Night is essentially a “woman’s novel” full of the most tedious pseudo-serious chat between characters that goes on for page after page.

            Altogether more gently (the Sayers stuff is so edged as to seem personal), Margery Allingham is faulted for not retiring Campion to the home for superannuated aristocrat sleuths (her books “would have been better still without the presence of the detective who belonged to an earlier time and a different tradition”), while Ngaio Marsh is taken to task for seeking “refuge from [the depiction of] real emotional problems in the official investigation and interrogation of suspects,” with Symons adding chidingly that “one is bound to regret that she did not take her fine talent more seriously.”  He is even more critical of Josephine Tey, long boosted by her many fans as something really new in crime fiction and the Fifth Crime Queen (Christie, Sayers, Allinhgam, Marsh, and sometimes Tey), whom he summarily dismisses  as belonging to the past and “really rather dull,” along with Ellis Peters, author of the beloved Brother Cadfael mysteries (“I have tried three books without getting to the end of one”), Gladys Mitchell, currently undergoing a revival (“an average Humdrum….tediously fanciful….impenetrable”), and once hugely popular American mystery writers Mary Roberts Rinehart (“crime stories which have the air of being written specifically for maiden aunts”) and Mignon Eberhart, who barely rates a sniffy mention.  Repeatedly Symons stresses his belief that the presence of a series sleuth was a ball-and-chain around the narratives of Allingham and Marsh, stunting the artistic development of their crime writing. 

            How refreshing it is for me, as a lover of vintage detective fiction, to go back to some of Symons’ earliest crime fiction reviews from the 1940s and 1950s—what might be termed his pre-dogma days--and find him singing gustily a rather more enthusiastic tune in regard to some of these same detective writers, as well as others who were entirely omitted from the pages of Bloody Murder.  It seems that Julian Symons--like Raymond Chandler, another famous critic of Golden Age detective fiction (see his essay “The Simple Art of Murder”)--was of a mind rather more divided on the matter than he willingly acknowledged. 


            One of the biggest shocks, from one of Julian Symons’ “Life, People--And Books” columns (1947) in the Manchester Evening News, concerns Dorothy L. Sayers and the ardent devotion which Symons professes to have for her criminal handiwork.  “A few weeks ago, Miss Dorothy Sayers, when asked if she was working on a new detective story, replied that she was not,” Symons, then just thirty-five, reported.  “She added that she did not even read new detective stories nowadays, because our present-day mysteries were so markedly inferior to those of a few years ago.  In common with many other readers I regard Miss Sayers’ defection with dismay.  I hope she is really deceiving us, and is quietly hatching out a new story with a brand-new detective.”

            Were Symons’ tears real human ones, or those of a crocodile?  Perhaps his expressed hope that Sayers write a new story with a brand-new detective really amounted to a wish that she would rid the world of Lord Peter Wimsey.  Yet Symons claimed to regard her defection from detection with dismay.  Symons even agreed with Sayers than detective fiction in 1947 was worse than that from a decade earlier, although he praised Christie, Carr and, more surprisingly, Ngaio Marsh, “who gives us every year a piece of social satire with a mystery neatly embedded in it.”  No complaints from Symons here about the “long and tedious post-murder examinations of suspects” in Marsh’s mysteries, as there would be in Bloody Murder.

            In a 1949 column Symons laments the loss of the “superman detective,” observing: “The detective as a heroic or remarkable figure has almost vanished from the detective story--and a certain liveliness has gone with him.”  Fortunately for lovers of Super Sleuths there was “Mrs. Agatha Christie,” who “may fairly be called the queen of detective story writers now that Miss Dorothy Sayers has abdicated the throne; and it may be fitting that, like Miss Sayers, she should have created one of the few memorable modern detectives—the little Belgian Hercule Poirot….It is very noticeable that the best of Miss Christie’s stories are those in which Poirot appears.”  So did Symons actually like Lord Peter Wimsey at this time, then?  And if the presence of series detectives marred the work of Allingham and Marsh, why did it not do so with Christie?

            It seems that back in the late Forties, Symons really liked those puzzles and he was forthright in declaring his admiration for them, even at the expense of the old Victorian masters of mystery whom he would later celebrate in Bloody Murder.  “There are few more ingenious detective writers than Ellery Queen and Carter Dickson,” Symons admiringly observed in 1949, sounding like a true modern miracle problem fanboy with a blog.  “It is no exaggeration to say that in the way they set and explain their puzzles these writers can knock Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle (or any other old-fashioned detective writer) into a cocked hat.”

            By 1955, Symons, still conducting his column for the Manchester Evening News, admitted, in a review of Ngaio Marsh’s latest mystery Scales of Justice,  that he asked for “something more from the modern detective story than a puzzle.”  Yet it seems that, at that time anyway, Marsh amply gratified Symons’ need:

The classical formula for the detective story is well known.  Introduce your suspects in some rural scene.  Let them include the local vicar, doctor and solicitor.  Kill off the most unpleasant of them, and then proceed to long, long interrogations by the police and amateur detectives….Ngaio Marsh uses this old formula brilliantly….There are interrogations galore, conducted by that gentlemanly professional Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn.  How is it that Miss Marsh managed to make all this so wonderfully entertaining?

            The prime reason is that like all good modern crime writers she is also a lively novelist.  There is something individual about her characters. 

            The interrogation of suspects, as she manages it, reveals a genuine clash of wits….Yet—and this is a rare thing—she can provide the puzzle, too.  The solution…is highly ingenious.  This is one of Miss Marsh’s two or three best books.  It is assured of a place on the top shelf of crime fiction. 

            By the time of Bloody Murder, however, this “top shelf” Marsh had been, it seems, carelessly shelved.  Yet in 1955 Inspector Alleyn and his endless inquisitions had not served as an obstacle to Symons’ reading enjoyment--indeed, far from it.  What seems to have changed is something in Symons himself.  A quarter of a century later, Symons selected, to represent Ngaio Marsh for the 1980 Collins Crime Club Jubilee Reprint series which he edited, not Scales of Justice but Spinsters in Jeopardy, an improbable thriller that no one else I know of has ever praised as one of Marsh’s best books.  Citing “the problems facing the writer [like Marsh and, presumably, himself] who wants to create characters, yet knows the need to present and organize a puzzle,” Symons declared that happily “Marsh has sometimes escaped from these problems by writing another kind of book, the simple, pure, enjoyable thriller in which the puzzle is a secondary element.  Spinsters in Jeopardy is such a story.”

            In the same column in which he reviewed Marsh’s Scales of Justice, Symons assessed the detective novel Watson’s Choice by Gladys Mitchell.  You remember Gladys Mitchell: the author dismissed as “tediously fanciful” in Bloody Murder.  Back in 1955 Symons gratefully deemed the author “an old reliable if ever there was one” and her latest book, based on an “ingenious idea,” “well worked out” with “several good touches” (though “rather lacking in liveliness”).  Admittedly this is a mixed review (Symons does so value “liveliness” in murder fiction), but it is far from the curt dismissal which Mitchell receives in Bloody Murder, where Symons acted as if he could barely recall the poor woman. 

            At least Gladys Mitchell merited a paragraph’s worth of notice in Bloody Murder.  Other authors whom Symons once professed actually to enjoy receive only the slightest of passing, patronizing nods in his 1972 survey.  Take Elizabeth Daly, for example.  In Bloody Murder she is written off simply as one of the “Golden Age writers whose work was once highly popular.”  However, in 1954 Symons reviewed her final detective novel, The Book of the Crime, in the Manchester Evening News, declaiming: “a typical example of her craft, and very enjoyable it is too.”  What was Daly’s craft, precisely?  “[R]ather cozily horrific stories with a strong feminine appeal.”  Apparently this appeal had become lost on Symons by 1972. 

            Then there is the strange case of Mary Fitt, who in the Forties and Fifties had at least three mystery books highly praised by Symons in the Manchester Evening News: the early Forties novels Death and Mary Dazill and Requiem for Robert, reprinted as Penguin paperbacks (and soon to be reprinted in the present day by Moonstone Press with introductions by me), and the short story collection The Man Who Shot Birds.  The novels Symons lauded lavishly as crime novels of character and atmosphere, although he does not use the term explicitly.  The short story collection he raved as a model puzzler: “The detective short story is a most difficult form—much more difficult than the full-length novel as anyone who has tried to write both [like Symons] will know—and Miss Fitt handles it very skillfully….the mysteries themselves are highly ingenious, with false clues laid and misleading suggestions made most cunningly in limited space.”  By 1972, however, Symons seemingly had forgotten that the talented Miss Fitt had ever existed, obviously much preferring to write rapturously about the talented Mr. Ripley.

            So far I have detailed only women writers whom Symons left by the wayside or seriously downgraded.  One male writer who suffered the same treatment, however, was versatile mainstream author Rupert Croft-Cooke, who under his pseudonym Leo Bruce was during the Fifties and Sixties one of the finest exponents of the classic detective story, which Symons insisted in Bloody Murder was rapidly wasting.  In 1948 Penguin reprinted Bruce’s classic debut detective novel Case for Three Detectives, which simultaneously was an ingenious locked room puzzler and an affectionate parody of Great Detectives Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown.  Symons’ praise for this superb detective tale, which may have influenced his own poor attempt at satirizing Philo Vance in The Immaterial Murder Case, was high indeed:

I read “Case for Three Detectives” more than ten years ago and thought highly of it then.  I have refreshed my memory and can confirm that this is one of the most slyly amusing tales of detection that has yet been written.  Lord Simon Plimsoll, Monsieur Amer Picon and Monsignor Smith are three amateur detectives who bear a wicked resemblance to the famous creations of Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and the late G. K. Chesterton. 

            Their investigation of the mysterious death of Mary Thurston and the account of the ingenious theories which are destroyed by solid, stolid sergeant Beef is very good fun.           

            Yet not a whisper of Bruce is heard in Bloody MurderEt tu, Brucey?


            Why all these later revisions and omissions?  Was Symons simply a remarkably insincere reviewer in those Manchester Evening News pieces?  Certainly there are always imperatives for reviewers to give good notices to the books they review.  Such notices make publishers happy, not to mention readers, who are ever on the hunt for new books to read and do not like just to be told how dreadful everything is.  And making both publishers and readers happy makes the reviewers’ employers happy too, which is no small consideration.  All too often one has, after all, to sing for one’s supper. 

            Additionally, most reviewers naturally dislike offending others.  My previous blog post here at The Passing Tramp, which criticized Julian Symons’ own first essay in crime fiction, that weak little number The Immaterial Murder Case (1945), provoked an internet friend of mine of over a decade’s standing--a former blogger of fine distinction and discriminating taste who is also something of a Symons fan, you might say--to accuse me, in rather off-color language, of wanting to “make Julian Symons my bitch,” which took me aback.  (I assure you I have no desire to make anyone “my bitch.”)  In Symons’ case, he himself was inducted into the Detection Club in 1950, meaning that he socialized with some of the very writers he was reviewing above, like Christie, Fitt and Mitchell.  (Marsh, a native of New Zealand, did not join the Detection Club until 1974.)   Yet throughout his life Symons seems to me to have been a man remarkably forthcoming, if not to say overbearing, with his opinions and not especially concerned about hurting the tender feelings of either authors or their fans.       

            In the Sixties an incensed Margery Allingham took Symons’ mixed reviews of her novels in the Sunday Times so personally that she wanted to have him bounced from the Crime Writers Association.  Across the pond, in the New York Times in 1977, not long after the death of esteemed American mystery writer Rex Stout, creator of Great Detective Nero Wolfe, Symons in a review of the recently published biography of the author boldly waved a virtual red cape in front of the faces of Stout’s many fans, writing:

At the risk of outraging an accepted American myth, it must be said that [Stout biographer Joseph] McAleer absurdly inflates the [Nero Wolfe] stories’ merit….Stout was simply not in the same stylistic league with Hammett, Chandler or Ross Macdonald.  His prose is energetic and efficient, nothing more.  His plots lack the metronomic precision of Ellery Queen’s….[The memorable Wolfe] operates in the context of books that are consistently entertaining, but for the most part just as consistently forgettable.

Letters of protest poured in from the late Stout’s offended American mythmakers, who angrily questioned whether any of this really must have been said by Symons.  Methodically Symons responded, complaining at one point that one of the letter writers had been “gratuitously insulting” to him. 

            Personally I do not doubt that in his book reviews Symons was expressing his genuine beliefs at the time.  What produced the change in them, then?  I think over time Symons’ views hardened into inflexible dogma, producing in Bloody Murder a crusading book in which he was determined, finally, to put puzzle-oriented detective fiction in its lesser literary (or non-literary) place for once and all as the sort of freak it was, a changeling which had mischievously replaced the crime novel in its cradle back in the Twenties and Thirties and continued ever since to receive nostalgic genuflection.  Additionally I think Symons genuinely had gotten bored with detective fiction, having had to read so many pedestrian examples of it in his capacity as the Sunday Times mystery reviewer for a decade.  (Dorothy L. Sayers had only been able to stick it out in that job for a couple of years).  In Bloody Murder Symons recalls that “I gave up [reviewing mystery fiction at the Sunday Times] chiefly because I knew I was becoming stale, so that my reaction on seeing a parcel of new books was not the appropriate slight quickening of the pulse marking the hope of a masterpiece.  I opened it rather with the expectation that the contents would fulfill my belief that almost all crime writers publish too much.”

            Ironically Bloody Murder--that lauded, landmark study of mystery, detective and crime fiction--was written by a man nearing his seventh decade who had lost his youthful enthusiasm for detective fiction and become to a great degree jaded with the very genre to which he had devoted his book.  While he was able to summon up something of his juvenile passion for Christie, Queen, Carr and even, in a true testament to the power of nostalgia, Philo Vance—it appears to me that what he now wanted desperately was for murder fiction to mean something, for tales of violent death to say something meaningful to him about life.  “Bloody Murder…makes discriminations between thoroughbreds and hacks,” the ailing Symons declared in a cri de cœur near the end of the ‘92 edition, published not long before his death.  “It was part of my hope and intention that the book would, through such discriminations, raise the status of the best crime stories so that they would be considered seriously as imaginative fictions.”  The books by “serious” crime writers like Patricia Highsmith, Dashiell Hammett, Eric Ambler, he still found rewarding reading, but so many other makers of mystery seem largely to have lost their luster for him.  Perhaps Bloody Murder should have been titled Bloody Bored.