Sunday, 23 December 2007

Julian Symons

I exchanged comments with fellow blogger Maxine Clarke a few weeks back about the late, and in my opinion great, Julian Symons. His study of the genre, Bloody Murder, was published when I was in my teens, and it influenced my choice of reading for many years. It was Symons who made me aware of writers such as C. Daly King, Margot Bennett, Edward Grierson and Cameron McCabe, whose very varied work I found delightful to read. There were some good authors whom he overlooked, but never mind; there is a limit to how much ground can be covered in a single volume.

Symons’ basic theme was that the detective story has transformed into the crime novel. Probably that is an over-simplistic analysis – not long after he published the first edition of his book, a writer called Colin Dexter emerged, who proved triumphantly that the classic detective story was very far from dead and gone. Symons could be scathing about the writing of authors whom he described as ‘Humdrums’, and fans of those writers – understandably – have always been a bit miffed about that as a result. But Symons had a very acute intelligence, and he was always open to ‘reasoned contradiction’.

He will probably be best remembered as a critic, but in truth his range was astonishing – he was a poet, biographer and social historian, as well as author of some of the best British crime novels of the post-war era. The End of Solomon Grundy, Progress of a Crime, and (a special favourite of mine for its sheer entertainment value)The Man Whose Dreams Came True, were all excellent, and his other novels were never less than interesting. Some of his books focus on social attitudes, but he had read so widely in the genre that his twisty plotting was of a very high quality. The Plot Against Roger Rider is ingenious, and Sweet Adelaide shows his insight into true crime cases. A very late book, Death’s Darkest Face, was among his finest achievements, although sadly, it has never attracted the attention it deserved. Anyone keen on British crime fiction who is unfamiliar with his work has a real treat in store.

1 comment:

Xavier said...

Whatever one thinks of Symons as a critic, he sure was one of the major mystery writers of his time and his range was indeed astonishing. Your list might be mine, though I would add personal favorite A Three-Pipe Problem.