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.


  1. "Presumably Symons could have taken the criticism better than his fan. "

    Symons became friends with George Orwell after a hostile review and an exchange of letters, so it looks likely. As a professional man-of-letters, Symons probably thought that the amount of attention a book got was more important than the amount of praise.

  2. There's also the fact that Symons did not regard himself as only a "crime writer". He was also a social historian and biographer (his biography of his brother, A.J.A. Symons is a classic), so he took a wider view of crime novels than many of their other writers

    1. He was extremely versatile and scored successes in a number of fields.