Thursday, June 9, 2022

Incompetent, Irrelevant and Immaterial! The Immaterial Murder Case (1945), by Julian Symons

Julian Symons (1912-1994) was highly-regarded in his day as a critic and writer, not only of crime fiction but fiction generally (and non-fiction as well).  His output was large and varied.  However, one thing he was not, arguably, when his work is taken as a whole, was one of the great writers of detective fiction--by which I mean fiction organized around the solving of a clued murder puzzle.  

Of Symons' 29 crime novels, rather few, as I see it, could be called classics of genuine detective fiction.  My own candidates for his best detective-ish novels would be 

  • Bland Beginning (1949), an amiable essay in the Crispin-Innes artsy-literary mystery 
  • The Narrowing Circle (1954), an advertising mystery which owes a certain debt to Kenneth Fearing's classic The Big Clock (1946)
  • The Players and the Game (1972), a sort of police procedural/psycho-thriller partly inspired by the horrific real life Moors Murders (1963-65) (Symons murders women rather than children, however)
  • The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), reviewed by me here, and The Detling Secret (1982), Victorian period mysteries 
  • Death's Darkest Face (1990),a late, darkly beautiful bloom on the belladonna plant which rather resembles one of Ruth Rendell's multi-layered Barbara Vine mysteries

I recall quite liking all of these books, with the exception of the first, Bland Beginning, but I'm rereading that one now and am rather enjoying it so far.  I originally read all these books around two decades ago, when I was working on my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, "know your enemy" being my philosophy then where Symons was concerned.  

The Man Who Killed Himself (1967) is quite clever, but it is really more of an inverted mystery.  The Plot against Roger Rider (1973) has been praised as ingenious, but I read it and can't recall much of anything about it now, except that it didn't impress me at the time.  Ditto the recently reprinted The Belting Inheritance (1965) and The Killing of Francie Lake (1962), aka The Plain Man.  I thought some of his later books, like The Name of Annabel Lee (1983) and Playing Happy Families (1994), were rather dire indeed.  The best thing about A Three Pipe Problem (1975) is it's title, which Ngaio Marsh suggested to Symons.  It's belated sequel, The Kentish Manor Murders, is even more subpar.

Yet Symons' three most critically praised are all pure crime novels: The Thirty-First of February (1950), The Colour of Murder (1957), winner of the CWA Gold Dagger, and The Progress of a Crime (1960), winner of the MWA's Edgar.  And his critical survey of detective and crime fiction, Bloody Murder, originally published in 1972, which went through a total of three editions, the last appearing in 1992, not long before his death, apotheosizes crime fiction--tales about people impacted by crime--as inherently superior to detective fiction, which attempts first and foremost to baffle the reader through sheer cleverness.

It's not a surprise to me that the type of crime fiction authors do best is the type they praise as the best.  Carr liked devising miracle problems, Chandler marching down mean streets, and that's what they wrote about and celebrated.  Sayers thought puzzle mysteries were the greatest thing until she got personally bored with writing them and then lectured everyone else at length about how detective fiction needed to grow up and get bowels.  Symons was better at writing crime novels and thus he pronounced that they were superior to detective fiction, composed, don't you know, of mere puzzles.

And yet--Symons genuinely liked reading puzzle mysteries.  While he famously dismissed the writers he dubbed "Humdrums"--Freeman Wills Crofts and John Street being the two most prominent examples--he loved Carr, Ellery Queen (especially early Queen), Agatha Christie and even (this is real commitment) S. S. Van Dine.  Symons pronounced it priggish to turn one's nose up at a puzzle, but still he had something of the prig in him too.  Symons is like the health food nut, scarfing candy bars on the sly, or the morality crusader secretly downloading internet porn, although admittedly he was up front about his guilty puzzle pleasure.

the attractive-and material-
American edition

As a critic Symons could recognize a brilliantly designed puzzle, but he seemed to have more trouble writing those sorts of mysteries himself.  It may be unfair to pick out his first published mystery, The Immaterial Murder Case (1945), as an example of this, as it's a first novel. I will admit right off that he got much better at novel writing in general.  Still, on rereading this book some two decades after my first read, I found it about as enjoyable as chewing dry straw, to borrow from the critique Symons leveled, most unjustly, against pioneering "Humdrum" R. Austin Freeman.  

Julian Symons actually wrote The Immaterial Murder Case [TIMC] before the Second World War in 1939, when his main literary work largely consisted of writing poetry and editing a magazine of modern verse.  

The title of the detective novel is an obvious allusion to S. S. Van Dine, American creator of insufferable Great Detective Philo Vance, whose own The Winter Murder Case was posthumously published in 1939.  The manuscript is said to have lain in a desk drawer for six years, until Symons' wife (whom he married in the interim) found it and urged him to publish it.  

Julian Symons in 1946, just after publishing

So Symons went to his leftist publisher friend Victor Gollancz, who picked it up, but the book did not find an American publisher for another dozen years, when Macmillan's Cock Robin imprint added it to its Murder Revisited Series.  American reviews were less enthusiastic about the novel than the English ones had been, although perhaps that was due to the dozen years' time lapse.  Personally, I concur with this review from the Raleigh News and Observer: "Cluttery, wordy, stodgy and slow motion....A murder cannot possibly be immaterial, but a book can."

When Symons in 1950 came up for consideration for membership in the Detection Club (having been proposed by young Edmund Crispin), the DC members only looked at two of his then three mystery books, of which one was TIMC, and it almost scotched the deal.  

Dorothy L. Sayers complained that TIMC suffered from a "colossal cast of characters, all detestable and indistinguishable." while E. R. Punshon admitted that TIMC "doesn't appeal to me at all."  Fortunately for Symons, they liked his third mystery, Bland Beginning (1949), much better.

Symons tries to do several things in TIMC, all with very limited success in my view:

1. He satirizes the avant-garde art world though the immaterialism movement, which calls for painting what isn't there.  There are some cute bits with this but it's not sustained, nor are the characters really interesting.  In a misogynistic touch, the main female character, the American narrator's love interest, is called a "bitch" but about four or five people in the novel, including herself.   Ngaio Marsh, say, would have brought the whole situation more to life.   

2. He tries to satirize the Great Detective through the tiresome character of "Teak Woode," who is, yes, an amateur detective, though a great one only in his own mind.  I tend to find that Symons was not really a good humorous writer and boy does the Teak Woode character confirm it.  His portrayal is labored and obvious and the long section which is actually narrated by Woode is excruciating.  We get it, Julian, he's an ass.  Compare this with Leo Bruce's immeasurably superior Case for Three Detectives (1936), where Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown are brilliantly, hilariously and, yes, lovingly parodied.

3. He tries to provide a baffling mystery: Who killed the art critic and left his body in the egg sculpture at the art exhibition?  There's one nice bit of misdirection here but overall the plot is full of the devices which Symons himself spend decades disparaging: alibis and timetables.  There's even a four-page (!!!!) timetable of the many suspects' movements.  I say leave this sort of thing to Freeman Wills Crofts, who loved it so.  He handles it more entertainingly.  With Symons the urge to skip pages becomes irresistible.

In short, both the mystery and the characters are unmemorable, making TIMC a miss for me.

On the other hand, Inspector Bland is a perfectly decent police detective and he had two superior cases which followed this one before Symons abandoned him.  And, while the original Gollancz dust jacket is the usual dreadful yellow and red number, the American edition in the Murder Revisited Series is terrific!  Now I'll give dueling attorneys Perry Mason and Hamilton Burger the last words:


  1. Agreed about Symonds, but not about Gollancz dust jackets. As a boy they made it very easy to spot them in the Library. As they published a lot of good crime and Science fiction, this helped my borrowing and increased my breadth of reading. I'm quite nostalgic for 'boring' cover design now Photoshop seems to be the principal tool for covers. Good to have you back, BTW

    1. Well, I'd take Gollancz over the "shadowy figure" cover obligatory on all mysteries today!

      I like the Penguins!

    2. I liked the Penguin crime titles, for distinct covers and range. I Birmingham (UK) my home town we had a Penguin Bookshop when I was young. It was an important element in my reading life. From John Dickson Carr to Ben Jonson, it was a treasure trove of literature.

  2. I watch a lot of "Perry Mason" re-runs and when I saw your title, I instantly thought of Hamilton Burger!