|He said what? |
British crime writer and critic
Julian Symons (1912-1994)
[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 Murder! Et 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.”