Julian Symons

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622

Julian Gustave Symons (the name rhymes with “women’s”) was born on May 30, 1912, in London, the last child in a family of seven. His parents were Minnie Louise Bull Symons and Morris Albert Symons, but Julian never learned his father’s original name or nationality. A seller of secondhand goods until World War I brought him profits as an auctioneer, the elder Symons was a strict Victorian-era father.

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As a child, Julian Symons suffered from a stammer that placed him in remedial education despite his intelligence. Although he overcame his speech problems and excelled as a student, Symons nevertheless ended his formal education at the age of fourteen and began an intense program of self-education that encompassed all that was best in literature. Symons worked variously as a shorthand typist, a secretary in an engineering firm, and an advertising copywriter and executive, all in London, before he became established as an important and prolific writer of crime fiction.

At first glance, Symons’s literary career appears to fall rather neatly into two distinct and contradictory phases: radical poet in the 1930’s and Tory writer of crime fiction. A founder of the important little magazine Twentieth Century Verse and its editor from 1937 to 1939, Symons was one of a group of young poets who in the 1930’s were the heirs apparent to Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden. Before the outbreak of World War II, Symons was already the author of two volumes of poetry and was acquiring a reputation as an insightful and astute literary critic.

In 1941, Symons married Kathleen Clark; they had two children, Sarah and Maurice. From 1942 to 1944, Symons saw military service in the Royal Armoured Corps of the British army. A major turning point in Symons’s career was the publication of his first crime novel, The Immaterial Murder Case (1945). Originally written as a spoof of art movements and their followers, this manuscript had languished in a desk drawer for six years until Kathleen encouraged him to sell it to supplement his wages as a copywriter.

The success of this and the novel that followed, A Man Called Jones (1947), provided Symons with the financial security he needed to become a full-time writer and spend time on books that required extensive research. With his fourth novel, The Thirty-first of February (1950), Symons began to move away from the classic detective forms to more experimental approaches. He supplemented his freelance income with a weekly book review column, inherited from George Orwell, in the Manchester Evening News from 1947 to 1956. Through the years, he also wrote reviews for the London Sunday Times (1958-1968), served as a member of the council of Westfield College, University of London (1972-1975), and lectured as a visiting professor at Amherst College, Massachusetts (1975-1976).

A cofounder of the Crime Writers’ Association, Symons served as its chair from 1958 to 1959. That organization honored him with its Crossed Red Herrings Award for best crime novel in 1957 for The Colour of Murder, a special award for Crime and Detection in 1966, and the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement in 1990. Symons also served on the board of the Society of Authors from 1970 to 1971, succeeded Agatha Christie as president of the Detection Club from 1976 to 1985, and presided over the Conan Doyle Society from 1989 to 1993. The Mystery Writers of America honored him with the Edgar Allan Poe Award for The Progress of a Crime in 1961, a Special Edgars Award for Bloody Murder in 1973, and the Grand Master Award in 1982. The Swedish Academy of Detection also made him a grand master in 1977; he won the Danish Poe-Kluhben in 1979, and was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1975. His final novel, A Sort of Virtue: A Political Crime Novel, appeared in 1996—two years after his death.

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