Julian Symons Essay - Critical Essays


Although Julian Symons’s intricately crafted crime novels have their roots in the classic detective tradition, they also represent his lifelong fascination with genre experimentation, with moving beyond the confines of the tightly structured detective story that provides, through a sequence of cleverly revealed clues, an intellectually satisfying solution to a convoluted crime puzzle. In Bloody Murder, Symons has made clear the distinctions he draws between the detective story and the crime novel. To Symons, the detective story centers on a Great Detective in pursuit of a solution to a crime, generally murder. Major emphasis is placed on clues to the identity of the criminal; in fact, much of the power of the detective story derives from the author’s clever manipulation of clues and red herrings. Typically, the British detective story is socially conservative, set in a rural England that still reflects the genteel lifestyle of a bygone age. The crime novel, by contrast, generally has no master detective, but rather probes the psychology of individuals who have been driven by their environment—usually urban or suburban—to commit crimes or to become victims. Quite often the crime novel is critical of the social order, especially of the ways in which societal pressures and institutions gradually and inexorably destroy the individual.

Chief Inspector Bland

Although Symons began his career with three formula detective novels featuring Chief Inspector Bland of the slow but adequate methodology, he soon abandoned both the form and the icon for the more ambitious project of using crime literature as social criticism. Nevertheless, these three early novels manifest in embryonic form the themes that dominate Symons’s later fiction: the social personas that mask the true identity and motivations of an individual, the games people play to keep their masks in place, and the social pressures that force those masks to fall away, leaving the individual vulnerable and uncontrollable. In fact, masks and game playing are the dominant motifs in Symons’s fiction, functioning at times as metaphors for escape from the more unpleasant realities of existence. About his decision to move beyond the series detective, Symons said, “if you want to write a story showing people involved in emotional conflict that leads to crime, a detective of this kind is grit in the machinery.”

In Symons’s crime novels, the central focus is frequently on individuals who are driven to violent behavior by external forces over which they have—or believe they have—no control. “The private face of violence fascinates me,” Symons acknowledged in an interview. More specifically, Symons is intrigued by the violence inherent in suburban dwellers, in respectable middle-class people who commute daily to numbingly dull jobs and return home to stiflingly placid homes and families in cozy English neighborhoods. Not for Symons the placid world of the English village with its hollyhocks and quaint cottages and population of genial eccentrics. His is the world of the ordinary and the average, at home and in the workplace; he delineates the sameness of the workaday routine and the anonymity of the business world that neatly crush the individuality out of all but the most hardy souls, that goad the outwardly sane into irrational and destructive actions. Symons has commented that in his work he consciously uses acts of violence to symbolize the effects of the pressures and frustrations of modern urban living. How these pressures result in bizarre and uncontrollable behavior is sharply described in The Tigers of Subtopia, and Other Stories (1982), a collection of stories about the latent tiger buried in the most innocuous of suburban denizens, about submerged cruelty and violence released by seemingly inconsequential everyday occurrences.

Nearly all Symons’s characters disguise their true selves with masks, socially acceptable personas that hide the tigers inside themselves, that deny the essential human being. The early work A Man Called Jones unravels the mystery surrounding a masked man who calls himself Mr. Jones. Bernard Ross, prominent member of Parliament in The Detling Murders (1982), once was Bernie Rosenheim. May Wilkins in The Colour of Murder, anxious to hide the existence of a thieving father and an alcoholic mother, takes refuge behind a forged identity as a nice young married woman who gives bridge parties and associates with the right sort of people. Adelaide Bartlett (Sweet Adelaide, 1980) plays the part of an adoring and dutiful wife even after she has murdered her husband. In The Gigantic Shadow (1958; also known as The Pipe Dream), the mask is literal and very public. Disguised as “Mr. X—Personal Investigator,” Bill Hunter, a popular television personality, conceals the fact that he is really O’Brien, a onetime prison inmate. When his charade is exposed and he loses his job, he becomes Mr. Smith, with disastrous consequences. False identities are important to The Paper Chase (1956; also known as Bogue’s Fortune ), The Belting Inheritance (1965), and The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968). Many of Symons’s protagonists masquerade behind aliases: Anthony Jones as Anthony Bain-Truscott or Anthony Scott-Williams, Arthur Brownjohn alias Major...

(The entire section is 2200 words.)