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.

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