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Symons, Julian

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years, 3 months ago

Julian SymonsJulian Gustave Symons (1912-1984) was an English poet, biographer and critic. From 1958 to 1968 he reviewed mystery fiction for The Sunday Times. He has written non-fiction studies of criminology as well as biographies.


Symons as a writer began with a series of fairly conventional Golden Age stories, beginning with The Immaterial Murder Case (1945), A Man Called Jones (1947) and Bland Beginning (1949), all featuring Inspector Bland. His equally conventional short stories about the character Francis Quarles are collected in Murder! Murder! (1961) and Francis Quarles Investigates (1965).


Unfortunately from a Golden Age perspective Symons had a Road-to-Damascus conversion to 'psychological' stories and became not only a writer of these but a tireless and vocal advocate of them as a critic. Excellent writers were attacked for their skilful use of Golden Age paradigms, and dreary hodgepodge like The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor was extolled to the skies. How much of the decline in Golden Age writing is directly attributable to Symons is hard to say, but his misplaced enthusiasm for the psychological thriller over the novel of deduction must have done enormous damage to the Golden Age cause. His own output during the 1970s and 1980s was largely made up of dull suburban soap operas, with the solution an arbitrary appendix to long-winded Freudian analyses of personality and behaviour.



Mike Grost on Julian Symons

Recently I reread Julian Symons' history of mystery, Bloody Murder / Mortal Consequences (1972). Its core thesis was that puzzle plot mystery fiction was an inferior kind of writing that was admirably being replaced by the crime novel, mainstream-like accounts of crime, often without mystery. These crime novels focused on the psychology of the criminal, which is what Symons saw as the chief locus of merit in crime writing.


When I first read this book in the 1970's, I went into a screaming fit of rage. I love puzzle plot mystery fiction, and was outraged that it was once again being dismissed as a sub-literary kind of writing. I was used to this sort of comment by mainstream literary mandarins like Edmund Wilson, but was disturbed to see it taken up by people within the mystery field itself, like Symons. The book was showered with Edgars, and treated as the Official Truth About Detective Fiction by much of the mystery establishment of the day. However, the recent re-reading, plus the passage of time, has allowed for some new perspectives on this book. Time has been cruel to both sides of the debate Symons participated in 1972. During the thirty-odd years since then, neither the puzzle plot mystery nor the psychological crime study has flourished in the English language novel. (EQMM has published many puzzle plot short stories by Hoch, Asimov, Breen, Ritchie, etc.) Instead, the main focus of the English language novelists has been the police procedural. These books combine realistic social observation of a city, country or region, with a realistic account of police investigating a crime. There are other popular sub-genres, but many of these turn out to be "police procedurals in disguise". For example, many, maybe most historicals are basically police procedurals that that place in the past. Instead of a realistic description of some modern day city or country, they offer a realistic description of London in the Victorian or Elizabethan era, or Ancient Rome. Similarly, quite a few modern "private eye" novels are quite procedural-like. They offer a realistic portrait of some city, such as San Francisco, LA or Detroit, with the shamus doing the sort of realistic, step-by-step investigation typical of the procedural. They don't really resemble Dashiell Hammett very much... Symons damned this police procedural sub-genre with faint praise in 1972. He referred negatively to its "surface realism".


Realism is indeed the chief goal of most procedurals, and their historical offshoots. They open with pages and pages of acknowledgements to experts who helped get all the details of the story right. All this realistic detail and research seems to be the main point of the story - far more than either plot or psychology.


There is evidence that Symons may have come to change his views again in old age:


"When this new edition appeared I was eighty years old, and my views may be attributed simply to the hardening arteries of old age. I hope and think that is not true, but am conscious of swimming against a strong prevailing tide. No matter what logical arguments are raised among them, the popularizing Philistines will have their way in the next few years. Strip cartoon writing will become more prevalent and be praised for gritty realism, more unsilenced lambs will raise their sado-masochistic cry. Perhaps there will be also the kind of books that equal the best of the writers I admire, but swimming against the tide is a tiring and unwise practice for the old.


O Moon of Alabama

We now must say goodbye


run the lines of Brecht's haunting lyric, and I take them to be good advice. I shall rest reasonably content with what I have done and not done, and make no more additions or revisions to Bloody Murder. It is time to say goodbye."


See also http://atthevillarose.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/in-praise-of-julian-symons.html




The Immaterial Murder Case (1945)

A Man Called Jones (1947)

Bland Beginning (1949)

The Thirty-First of February (1950)

The Broken Penny (1953)

The Narrowing Circle (1954)

The Paper Chase (1956)

The Colour of Murder (1957)

The Gigantic Shadow (1958)

The Progress of a Crime (1960)

Murder! Murder! (1961)

The Killing of Francie Lake (1962)

The End of Solomon Grundy (1964)

The Belting Inheritance (1965)

Francis Quarles Investigates (1965)

The Man Who Killed Himself (1967)

The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968)

The Man Who Lost His Wife (1970)

The Players and the Game (1972)

The Plot against Roger Rider (1973)

A Three Pipe Problem (1975)

How to Trap a Crook (1977)

The Blackheath Poisonings (1978)

Sweet Adelaide (1980)

The Great Detectives (1981)

The Detling Murders (1982)

Tigers in Subtopia (1983)

The Name of Annabel Lee (1983)

The Criminal Comedy of a Contented Couple (1985)

The Kentish Manor Murders (1988)

Death's Darkest Face (1990)

Something Like a Love Affair (1992)


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