I first read Julian Symons' The Detling Murders not long after its original publication in 1982. It was the third of his Victorian mysteries, following the highly successful (and televised) The Blackheath Poisonings and the very interesting Sweet Adelaide. Both those novels drew heavily on real life nineteenth century murder cases, although they were very different from each other. The Detling Murders was different again - Symons strove not to repeat himself, hence his distaste for series characters - but I remember feeling rather underwhelmed.
For one thing, if not for the title(which was changed for the US anyway), I'd have wondered if I really was reading a murder mystery. Murder doesn't occur until we are more than half way through the story, while the second killing takes place very near the end of the book. Symons himself felt dissatisfied with the book and decided to go back to writing contemporary mysteries.
On rereading the book, however, I was more impressed. This is partly because Symons' picture of upper class Victorian society is very entertaining in its own right. The Detlings are a fading branch of the landed gentry and Sir Arthur Detling, the head of the household, is almost a caricature of a crusty old reactionary. But the family dynamics are nicely portrayed. The starting point is the news that Dolly Detling wants to marry an up and coming Liberal MP, Bernard Ross, whose background is rather mysterious. Sir Arthur isn't happy, but the couple get their way.
As usual, Symons moves the story along over a period of time, shifting focus from one character to another, so that it's not clear where events are heading. There are some Fenian dynamiters lurking in the background and shady business dealings aplenty. Roderick Detling is a gambler who has run up debts, while Nelly Detling gets herself involved with a dodgy crowd of artists (allowing Symons to write yet another bohemian party scene - he really did like writing those). The plot is carefully constructed, and stronger than I appreciated on a first reading. And as ever with Symons, the book is extremely readable. It ends up with a Christmas family gathering in rural Kent - the sort of scenario which usually opens detective stories rather than closing them. In this part of the book, as earlier, there are some nice comic touches.
The main reason why this book isn't a complete success is, I think, that Symons didn't pay enough attention to the building of tension and suspense. He sets up a series of intriguing situations but there's not as much excitement as many readers expect and indeed demand. Nor is it clear (and this is a problem in quite a few of his books) which member of his ensemble cast of characters is the central protagonist. For me, Bernard Ross is clearly the central figure and I think the story might have worked better if the focus on him had been clearer and more unrelenting. I guess Symons feared that this would reduce the surprise element of his story, but there could have been ways round that challenge. As it is, the murders and their investigation seem more perfunctory than is desirable in a detective novel. So this is a minor Symons, but it's definitely good enough to justify a read. Or two.