05/18/2024

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A Bloody-Minded Business: Julian Symons’ Evolution as a Crime Fiction Critic

A Bloody-Minded Business: Julian Symons’ Evolution as a Crime Fiction Critic

Most of the generation of authors that produced the Golden Age of detective fiction–that brief era when the puzzle plot purportedly reigned supreme in mysteries–had departed not only from the field but from life itself when, over 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 writing (there is a difference among them to be sure) and the first popular survey of the misdeeds and mayhem genre since Howard Haycraft published Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, three decades earlier in 1941. (Revised editions of Bloody Murder followed in 1985 and 1992.) 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 [detective fiction] diehards will insist that the puzzle is all—but few will be able to resist the cause.

In writing Bloody Murder, Julian Symons desired, like an earnest virologist, 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. 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 bloodstained roots in the days of the Victorian sensation novel of Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood and others. In the dark hearts of even superior crime novelists like himself, 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.” He 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—intellectual slumming, as it were. Nevertheless, Symons wanted it understood that the crime novel was a loftier mystery form than detective fiction, concerning itself with more than mere puzzles.

1972 seemed a propitious year indeed for finally putting the “detective story” back in its proper place as lesser entertainment and apotheosizing the serious novel of crime. (Note that Symons does not dignify the tale of detection with the word “novel.). The generation which had produced so many prime specimens of the detective novel—I will use the word novel—was passing rapidly 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 on January 12, 1976, Berkeley had been all that remained on earth of the original founders of the Detection Club. The Club had been formed in London over four decades earlier, in 1930, as a social organization for eminent practitioners of the fine art of clued murder, with the goal, in part, of distinguishing themselves from the purveyors of cheap thrills, or the shocker-schlockers, if you will, such as Edgar Wallace, “Sapper” and Sax Rohmer, inheritors of the lowly Victorian penny dreadful tradition.

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, entitled Passenger to Frankfurt, which, bad as it was, became an international bestseller anyway, the seemingly immortal Queen of Crime being critically bulletproof. 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 about a vintage crime thriller device: “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! from the curmudgeonly reviewer.

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 confirming indicators of the author’s rapidly diminishing powers. (Of Christie, Symons wrote with uncharacteristic indulgence in the first edition of Bloody Murder, when the Queen of Crime was still alive and active as a writer: “she is alone among Golden Age writers in remaining as readable as ever and her capacity sometimes still to bring off a staggering conjuring trick.”). In 1972, ailing Anglophile American mystery writer John Dickson Carr published his final mystery novel, The Hungry Goblin, which evidently is deemed so poor that is has never been reprinted in the last half-century. 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 appreciable zest, like Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, Gladys Mitchell and Rex Stout 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 slowly dying by degrees, struggled, zombie-like, for over a decade to complete a final, muddled mystery before his tragic, demise in 1978 at the age of fifty-six.

Julian Symons was well aware of all the death and dreary decline going on around him. He began writing the first edition of 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, Symons 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 1972 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.” The Seventies would see continued success for all five of these authors–particularly James and Rendell, both of whom, much to their irritation, the press dubbed successors to Agatha Christie–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 Symons, now himself an octogenarian just a couple of years away from his own demise, 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 [emphasis added] detective stories are written.” By old-fashioned did he mean books with country houses, floorplans, men-about-town, flippant flappers, stately butlers, terrified maids, bodies in libraries and other such impedimenta? Writers like P. D. James and Ruth Rendell hardly had need of such devices to create 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 forebodings for crime writing’s future. In it, Symons lamented the sadistic violence of Elmore Leonard’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, 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 [this a patronizing refence to the founding of Malice Domestic in 1989].

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 author takes time to visit a housing project and the murderer is revealed two-thirds of the way through the novel. But the truth is these authors wrote plenteous traditional, puzzle-oriented detective fiction, just like their forbears from the Golden Age did (embroidered, to be sure, with sound characterization and social observation). Today of the aforementioned quartet only Peter Lovesey, now himself an octogenarian, is 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 grievously underestimated the public’s passion for “mere puzzles.”

It becomes more obvious with each passing year that Julian Symons grievously underestimated the public’s passion for “mere puzzles.”

The blunt dismissiveness which Julian Symons in Bloody Murder directs 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.)

Admittedly Symons likes such Golden Age stalwarts as Agatha Christie—though he declares condescendingly that she was not a good writer from a literary standpoint and that her fictive world was a “fairyland”—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. When it comes to Dorothy L. Sayers, however, he is coruscating 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….[Sayers’ 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.

Rather more gently—the Sayers stuff is so sharp-edged as to seem personal—Margery Allingham is faulted for not retiring Campion to the home for superannuated aristocratic 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.” Repeatedly he stresses his belief that the presence of a series sleuth was a ball-and-chain around the narratives of Allingham and Marsh, shackling their artistic development as crime writers. Christianna Brand and Elizabeth Ferrars, younger writers who were both born in 1907 and first published crime novels near the end of the Golden Age, Symons classifies cursorily in the third edition of Bloody Murder as being among the better writers of what he terms the women’s crime novel. Brand, in his view, “often wrote too hastily for her own good,” while Ferrars (who was still alive at the time) “has never completely fulfilled her talent.”

Symons is forthrightly critical of Josephine Tey, long boosted by her many devout fans, including American critic and Symons contemporary Anthony Boucher, as an original and rare talent in crime fiction and what might be termed the Fifth Crime Queen (Christie, Sayers, Allinhgam, Marsh, and sometimes Tey). He dismisses examples of her crime writing as essentially belonging to the between-the-wars era and “really rather dull.” Coming off no better are Ellis Peters, author of the beloved Brother Cadfael mysteries (“I have tried three books without getting to the end of one”); Gladys Mitchell, creator of one of the genre’s most memorable women sleuths, Dame Beatrice Adela LeStrange Bradley (“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, the latter of whom barely rates from the critic a sniffy mention. In his view Eberhart, along with American mystery writer Elizabeth Daly and Britishers Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson, an early member of the Detection Club still alive when Bloody Murder was published), and Georgette Heyer, simply number among the “dozens” of “epigones” of Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Rinehart, et al, and hence did not merit serious critical consideration. For a nanosecond Patricia Wentworth, creator of the Miss Silver mysteries, pops up in the text as numbering, along with the aforementioned Margery Allingham and Christianna Brand, among the writers who refused “to be serious about anything except the detective and the puzzle”—a charge I find baffling in all three cases.

How refreshing it was for me, as a lover of vintage detective fiction, to turn back from the Symons of the pious and preachy Bloody Murder decades, the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, to some of the critics’ earlier crime fiction columns from the 1940s and 1950s—what might be termed his lighthearted, pre-dogma days. There I spied find him lustily singing an altogether more praiseful tune about some of these very same detective writers he in varying degrees disparaged in Bloody Murder, as well as others who were entirely omitted from the pages of his critical tome. It seems that Julian Symons—like Raymond Chandler, another famous critic of Golden Age detective fiction (see Chandler’s notorious essay “The Simple Art of Murder” and an earlier Crimereads article by me)—was of a mind rather more divided on the matter of mystery writing than he willingly acknowledged.

***

One of the biggest shocks from Julian Symons’ “Life, People—And Books” column in the Manchester Evening News is a 1947 piece concerning 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 rather those of the false sort reputedly shed by the crocodile?

Were Symons’ tears real human ones, or rather those of the false sort reputedly shed by the crocodile? Perhaps his expressed hope that Sayers write a new story with a brand-new detective really amounted to a wish that she would finally 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.

Incredibly, 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 and Sayers?

It seems that back in the late Forties, Symons really liked those series detective 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 [John Dickson Carr],” Symons admiringly observed in 1949, sounding like a twenty-first century 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 crime column for the Manchester Evening News, divulged, 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 fulfilled 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 discarded into the bargain bin. 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 within 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 rather Spinsters in Jeopardy, an improbable thriller that no one else I know of has ever praised as remotely close to being 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, 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 (another longtime colleague of his in the Detection Club).

At least Gladys Mitchell merited a paragraph’s worth of notice in Bloody Murder (the third edition, anyway; in the first she is merely mentioned in passing). Other authors whom Symons once professed actually to enjoy receive only the slightest of passing, patronizing nods in his 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, pronouncing it “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.” This cozy feminine appeal evidently 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 which Symons highly praised in the Manchester Evening News: the early Forties novels Death and Mary Dazill and Requiem for Robert, reprinted as Penguin paperbacks (and recently reprinted in the present day by Moonstone Press with introductions by me, I should disclose), and the short story collection The Man Who Shot Birds. Both novels Symons lavishly lauded 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 and his sociopathic ilk.

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 queer 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 series detective story, which Symons insisted in Bloody Murder was rapidly wasting. In 1948 Penguin reprinted Bruce’s classic debut Sergeant Beef 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—a personal favorite of my own, I should divulge—is heard in Bloody Murder! Seemingly “one of the most slyly amusing tales of detection that has yet been written” had been utterly forgotten by Symons.

***

Why all these later revisions and omissions on Symons’ part? Was the critic simply an insincere, cynical flatterer in those Manchester Evening News pieces, vigorously puffing books for which he actually cared little or nothing? 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 forever on the hunt for new books to read and understandably 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. A review I once posted at my blog The Passing Tramp, which criticized Julian Symons’ own first essay in crime fiction, that weak little number The Immaterial Murder Case (1945), provoked a onetime 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 fanboy (there are two of them I definitely know of), to accuse me, in rather off-color language, of wanting to “make Julian Symons my bitch,” which rather took me aback. (I can assure you I have no desire to make anyone “my bitch.”)

In Symons’ case, he himself was inducted into the Detection Club in 1950 and became a member of the Crime Writers Association when it was founded in 1953, meaning that he informally socialized with many of the very writers he was reviewing. 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 his author colleagues or their fans. Get tougher skins, was his attitude, it is just honest criticism. Or as he explicitly put it: “The good should be praised, the eccentric tolerated, the bad excoriated….What could be more reasonable? Yet after such knowledge, what forgiveness? The approach did not make universally loved.”

By the Sixties, Symons’ critical views had begun their tectonic shift.

By the Sixties, Symons’ critical views had begun their tectonic shift.  He was coming around to the “fact” which he pronounced in his introduction to Criminal Practices, a collection of his essays on crime writing published in 1994, the year of his death, 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 truth to the lives and language of the many millions of people below the upper and middle classes, the best British crime stories were immensely inferior to those written now.”

Back in the Sixties an incensed Margery Allingham took Symons’ mixed notices of her novels in the Sunday Times so personally that she implored the Times to keep her books out of his nitpicking hands. In 1964 she wrote defiantly of hoping with her next book, The Mind Readers (1965), her final book published during her lifetime, to “bust out of the AWFUL Gollancz/Symons/MWA [disparagingly referencing not merely Symons but the publisher Victor Gollancz and the Mystery Writers of America] stale blood and fumbling sex blanket bath and have FUN again”–which probably would only have confirmed Symons’ reservations about her writing had he been aware of this. Over two decades later, Symons, somewhat bemusedly observing what he termed the late Eighties “Allingham revival”—a series adapting her mysteries had been launched in the United Kingdom and her books reprinted in paperback—speculated thar this event was, in part, “a very minor accompaniment to the Thatcherite counter-revolution,” though he also credited the author’s exuberant romanticism, love for the “baroque and odd,” sharp eye for detail and “her surprising capacity to order and dovetail” her fanciful material into “plausible plots” (a very fair assessment of Allingham, in my view).

While Allingham was complaining about the negativity of Symons reviews back in the Sixties, however, the hugely prolific and popular British crime writer John Creasey, founder of the Crime Writers Association, was pugnaciously putting Allingham’s distraught words into action by proposing nothing less than expelling Symons from the CWA. The critic recalled mordantly in a 1989 article on Creasey that the ban was stay in effect “until such time as I started to write constructive, helpful reviews.” Lamented Symons of his former friend: “That different levels of writing existed was something that John did not understand, and that his books should stay unreviewed, or be reviewed caustically, really upset him.” Before the board of the CWA, according to Symons, Creasey indignantly “read out a long account of my critical misdeeds—and received no support [for his motion].” As Symons tells it, he and Creasey had still not really reconciled at the latter man’s death in 1973, a year after the publication of Bloody Murder, which probably had not helped the cause of reconciliation with such observations of Creasey’s work by Symons as “the writing of the books is never equal to their often clever conceptions, and his people think and behave with a schoolboyish naivete.” (In the Criminal Practices introduction five years later, by the by, Symons states that Creasey’s CWA expulsion motion was “decisively defeated”—not quite the same thing as its having received “no support,” but I digress.)

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, the ever-iconoclastic Symons, perhaps slightly bloodied but still bowed, in a review of Stout’s recently published biography boldly waved a virtual red flag in front of the faces of the author’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 truth is Stout wrote too much too easily, and that like all crime writers dependent on repeated introduction of the same characters—including Doyle and Simenon—his work was subject to the law of diminishing returns….[The admittedly 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 Stout’s American mythmakers, who questioned whether Symons really must have been said any of this. Methodically Symons responded, at one point complaining with a rather surprising sensitivity, given his years of bluntly questioning the talents and tastes, respectively, of other mystery writers and countrywide mystery readerships, that one of the letter writers, the late Richard Reis, Chairman of the English Department at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, had been “gratuitously insulting” to him. (Of Symons’ motivations in writing the hit piece Reis had speculated acidly: “As a far less successful mystery writer than Stout, he splenetically attacks a biographer, when his real target is the biographer’s subject.”)

How appalled Symons would have been, then, to have known that at this time the widely admired English suspense writer Mary Stewart (another name which does not appear in Bloody Murder) in a letter to Jospeh McAleer wrote with utter, withering contempt of the man:

You also know that Rex Stout is an incomparably better writer than the pathetic and jealous Symons (or any of the grubby merchants he admires), and that this is the motivation of the review….I have met [Symons]; he is a boor, and a second-rate writer, and has no sense of style—I mean, he would not know good English if he saw it. The biggest compliment Julian Symons can pay to any book is to dislike it.

Contrary to Richard Reis and Mary Stewart, I do not doubt that in both his early book reviews and his later ones Symons was expressing his genuinely held beliefs at the time, not concerning himself with how painful they were for some. What, then, produced the changes in his beliefs? I think that Symons’ views gradually 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 he now deemed it: 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 from fond fans. 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 over a decade. (Dorothy L. Sayers had only been able to stick it out in that job for a couple of years). In the third edition of 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.” Or, as he put it near the end of his life in 1994, in his introduction to Criminal Practices:

I wrote the column for more than a decade, received the whole flood of crime stories that came into the paper…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…. 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 percent of crime stories, mystery stories, thrillers, are written by people with no feeling for language, place or character. Once I understood that, there followed a desire [on my part] to make distinctions…to abandon the alkaline flatness of most writing about crime stories in favor of something sharper, sometimes even picric.

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, after over a decade of having hoped every two weeks, rather unreasonably it seems to me, for glittering masterpieces to cross his desk, rather than solid examples of able craftsmanship. (How many masterpieces does mainstream fiction produce on a biweekly basis?) While he was able to summon up something of his bygone juvenile passion for Christie, Queen, Carr and even, in a true testament to the power of adolescent nostalgia, S. S. Van Dine and Philo Vance—what he really now desperately wanted was for murder fiction to bloody mean something, for tales of violent death to say something meaningful to him about human 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, as ever he had earlier in his life, but so many other makers of mystery seem largely to have lost whatever luster they had previously held for him. As he reiterated in the third edition of Bloody Murder for readers who perhaps should have paid more attention to him two decades earlier: “although this book is in general a history of the crime story, it also reflects personal preferences.” The book also reflected, as I hope I have shown, Julian Symons’ profound personal boredom in his middle and later years with the great dead mass of the mystery genre, which, as he must have seen it, was sinking helplessly into the mire of mediocrity by the law of its own weight (to borrow from the Book of Revelation).

Perhaps Bloody Murder could more tellingly have been titled Bloody Bored.