Julian Symons Symons, Julian (Gustave) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Julian (Gustave) Symons 1912–

English novelist, short story writer, poet, editor, historian, critic, biographer, and scriptwriter.

While Symons is well regarded as a poet, critic, and biographer, he is best known as the author of many highly praised crime novels. Unlike many authors of crime fiction, Symons is less concerned with presenting a baffling mystery than he is with exploring the state of society. From a skeptical and ironic perspective, Symons chronicles a world of decay, corruption, and alienation in which the distinction between lawbreaker and law keeper is often vague. Several of Symons's novels have Victorian or other historical settings, while others take place in the present. Critics claim that Symons's best fiction transcends the limitations of the mystery novel to stand as original and thought-provoking literature.

Symons first made his name in the 1930s as a poet, publishing two volumes of verse and editing a poetry journal. His reputation as a critic was also established before he published his first crime novel, and he has continued to write criticism, including books on Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. Symons's interest in crime fiction has developed over his career. He initially viewed those works as secondary to his poetry and criticism but now sees them as an ideal forum for exploring the modern world. "If you want to show the violence that lives behind the bland faces most of us present to the world," he comments, "what better vehicle can you have than the crime novel?"

Symons's later publications reflect the diversity of his writings. Bloody Murder (1972) is a history of crime fiction built on the thesis that the plot-centered detective fiction of the 1920s and 1930s has given way to psychological crime novels that emphasize character and motivation. The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1978) is an unusual literary biography in that Symons refrains from conjecture as to the relationship between Poe's life and works. Two of Symons's recent fictional works reflect many of his recurrent thematic concerns. The Tigers of Subtopia (1983), a short story collection, features accounts of violence and cruelty in an apparently peaceful suburb, while The Name of Annabel Lee (1983) is a novel of failed love set against a backdrop of cultural decadence.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3.)

William R. Evans

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Almost everyone likes a good mystery. Approximately one fourth of all fiction published in the United States and Great Britain falls into the category that includes crime fiction, detective stories, mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels….

In his history of the genre [Mortal Consequences] Julian Symons traces its development from Poe's time to ours. All the major names are there, from Poe and his contemporaries—William Godwin, the first to delve into the psychological aspects of crime, and Eugene Vidocq, himself both criminal and detective—to such current authors as John Le Carré, Patricia Highsmith and Stanley Ellin. (p. 35)

The basic thesis of the book is that we have seen a change in the development of the mystery story from the intricate detective story with its emphasis on plot, which reached its peak in the Golden Age of the twenties and thirties, to the more psychological crime novel with its emphasis on character and motivation. Some writers are able to combine both elements effectively; Hammett is one example, and so is Julian Symons himself—his "The Man Who Killed Himself" contains a brilliant portrait of a fascinating murderer along with an extremely ingenious and suspenseful plot.

"Mortal Consequences" is probably the best book of its kind since Howard Haycraft's "Murder for Pleasure" which came out in 1941. It is too bad that there are so few books written about mysteries. One reason for this is that the genre is looked down on by most literary historians. Another is that most readers are too busy reading mysteries to think about them seriously. Julian Symons is an intelligent and perceptive man who has fallen into neither of these traps. (p. 36)

William R. Evans, in a review of "Mortal Consequences," in Best Sellers, Vol. 32, No. 2, April 15, 1972, pp. 35-6.

Robert Harrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If you have a passing interest in learning a bit about the detective story without having actually to read one, [Mortal Consequences: A History From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel] is just the book for you. Mr. Symons, with a good deal of critical insight and a pinch of condescension, tells us in his opening chapter what detective stories are ("part of the hybrid creature we call sensational literature") and why we read them (to exorcise "the guilt of the individual or the group through ritual and symbolic sacrifices"), then launches into a chronicle of the genre from the Godwin-Vidocq-Poe era to the present, gradually shedding enroute his academic regalia in favor of the fighting trunks of the professional reviewer cum literary critic.

When he analyzes, Mr. Symons is occasionally superb; when he opines, frequently silly. For instance, immediately after he has pointed out to us that the code of the Golden Age mystery writers dictated crimes should not be committed for reasons of state or on behalf of theoretical principles, we find him saying: "almost all of the British writers in the twenties and thirties, and most of the Americans, were unquestionably Right Wing…. It would have been unthinkable for them to create a Jewish detective, or a working-class one aggressively conscious of his origins…." (pp. 384-85)

Despite occasional accesses of the how-can-you-stand-there-eating-that-cookie-while-little-children-starve syndrome (viz. "The Coles were both deeply involved in the Labour movement, and G.D.H. Cole was a famous figure within it, yet their books ignored the very existence of the social realities with which in life they were so much concerned"), the fact remains that Mr. Symons is quite literate and knowledgeable, and has a good nose for literary values. The mystery buff, with a bit of judicious skimming, will find the book useful in leading him to many choice and generally overlooked works in the field. I must emphasize the word "skimming," however, because often, to swell his essay to book length, Mr. Symons has committed the unpardonable sin of his profession: blowing the gaff. With malicious persistence he spoils stories for would-be readers, while telling those who have read them nothing they do not know already…. (p. 385)

Robert Harrison, in a review of "Mortal Consequences: A History from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXVI. No. 3, Fall, 1972, pp. 384-85.

The Spectator

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Plot Against Roger Rider [is] by Julian Symons …, who is probably the foremost scholar of crime and thriller fiction now writing. Actually, there are two overlapping plots, one against Geoffrey Parradine, Rider's old friend, currently sleeping with Rider's wife; and one against Rider himself. There is a large cast of characters, and the action sweeps quickly from England to Spain and finally to Italy. disappearances and/or murders abound; there is a fetching Spanish detective who dreams of consuming bitter with his confréres of Scotland Yard and a pair of tiresome young lovers who, by pushing here and pulling there precipitate a solution to the eventual disappearance and death of Rider. It's an excellent, crackling read, but the structure is a little too academic; the cunning brain of the author of Bloody Murder is too busy with timetables rather than people; and the sociological orientations of that remarkable critique are too much in evidence, particularly in the case of the young hero who can't make up his mind if he is queer or not. Good: but for Symons a bit disappointing.

A review of "The Plot against Roger Rider," in The Spectator, Vol. 231, No. 7572, August 11, 1973, p. 187.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leave it to Julian Symons. When he writes a mystery, you can be assured that this urbane stylist, this master of the traditional detective story, will have a puzzler that will keep your mind racing. And so it is with "The Plot Against Roger Rider"…. Even the title is comfortably traditional. But unlike such veterans as Agatha Christie, there is nothing old-fashioned about Symons. His dialogue is crisp and modern. He is capable of wry humor without becoming heavyhanded about it. And his characters have life in them.

In "Roger Rider," Symons has cooked up a plot about the love-hate relationship of a domineering, successful man with one of his employees—and the relationships of those associated with him. All of this is done in virtuoso fashion, even if the pace is slow. Symons spends much time establishing those relationships. Not until he's at the half-way mark does catastrophe strike. There may be some slight murmurs about least likely suspects. But after it is all over, it can be seen that the author has played fair within the conventions. As he always does.

Newgate Callendar, in a review of "The Plot against Roger Rider," in The New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1973, p. 50.

The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Symons is always an enjoyably sly and deceiving writer, and he has seldom been trickier than in [The Plot Against Roger Rider]…. It is not, however, among his better stories. He has seldom been so diffuse or so labored, and he has never been so tediously generous with unnecessary characters and unfinished subplots. It must also be said that although he gives us a plentitude of bloody murders, nothing much seems to happen.

A review of "The Plot against Roger Rider," in The New Yorker, Vol. XLIX, No. 42, December 10, 1973, p. 200.

The Spectator

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have to say that Julian Symons's Bloody Murder … ("heartily recommended" in these columns by Kingsley Amis when it appeared in hardback; and, in spite of what I have to say, essential reading for all crime fans) is a pernicious and dangerous piece of work. In essence this book—sub-titled 'From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: a history'—is a sustained and bitter, if unacknowledged, attack on the classical detective story, and on Dorothy Sayers in particular.

The fundamental fact is that Symons prefers the brooding, psychological, sociological modernism of Simenon and his followers to the puzzle story of the Golden Age of detective fiction; and to enforce this preference he tells...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Daniel Hoffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Julian Symons' "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a … dependable guide to Poe's life. This book makes no claim to original research but offers a brisk synopsis of extant biographical knowledge, leavened by an experienced novelist's insights. Mr. Symons handles well the tangled narrative of Poe's troubled life, sensibly telling this tale without pausing to analyze Poe's stories. Criticism is deferred to Mr. Symons' last 70 pages….

Mr. Symons has mastered Poe's own milieu and renders well the social insecurity of the orphan raised among rich Virginians, his hard-scrabble life of drudging journalism, his fractious dealings with editors and minor writers. Mr. Symons properly emphasizes Poe's repeated and...

(The entire section is 634 words.)

Megan Marshall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Julian Symons, himself a writer of detective stories, gives a straightforward, knowledgeable account of Poe's life in The Tell Tale Heart. This in itself is no mean feat: more than one biographer has turned the life into a florid gothic tale. But Symons is so wary of the maudlin and the melodramatic, so devoted to recording every event in its proper sequence, that he fails to uncover the full dimensions of his subject. The Poe Symons speaks of most often is the contented family man, the industrious journalist, the courteous southern gentleman. Of the darker side, like a good detective storyteller, he gives us all the evidence. But the mystery of Poe is not easily solved; a summary of the evidence is not enough...

(The entire section is 900 words.)

Benny Green

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In going over ground likely to be familiar to the general reader, biographers often feel the need to buttress their presumption with a theory; if that theory can hint, no matter how vaguely, at some kind of 'reassessment', then all the better. The nervousness is understandable, but rarely can it have resulted in so eccentric a presentation of the material as in Symons's book on Edgar Allan Poe [The Tell-Tale Heart]. What we get is not so much a reassessment as a rearrangement, the manuscript being presented in two sections; first the life, then the works. Symons reasons that in few literary case histories has there been so marked a contrast between the bread-and-butter journalistic labours on the one hand, and...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Paul Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Julian Symons] has been putting together intricately crafted and plotted novels for roughly four decades, earning along the way more respect from peers than public fame…. [Symons] is not so well known as [Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and Daphne du Maurier], but like them he can invest a plot with significance beyond its conclusion…. Yet he may now be on the brink of solving the mystery of his comparative obscurity. At an age when most writers are, to put it gently, no longer productive, he is overseeing the publication of two new books on the same day. Taken together, they may prove a case to a wider array of jurors: Symons is far more than a maker of puzzles; he is a master of moral conundrums.


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Mary Cantwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Julian Symons is mystery fiction's grand old man. Novelist, historian of the genre and student of true crime as well, he has brought all three passions together in his most recent novels: "The Blackheath Poisonings," "Sweet Adelaide" and now "The Detling Secret."

All three are set in Victorian England, a period and place that are to connoisseurs of crime what catnip is to a kitten. And with good reason…. Jack the Ripper excepted, it is the Victorian era's domestic murderers and their homely weapons (arsenic soaked from flypaper, ground glass in the gruel) that fascinate.

Mr. Symons' "Sweet Adelaide" was based on the case of Adelaide Bartlett, a Pimlico housewife who in 1896 was...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Meredith Tax

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dudley Potter [the protagonist of The Name of Annabel Lee] is a bit of a nerd…. Dudley's soul lies dormant until a traveling avant-garde theater group involves him in audience participation, and he meets the blond and beautiful actress Annabel Lee. (Her mother had a thing for Poe.) But after a few months of passion, Annabel splits, leaving only a note; "End of the affair. Sorry I have to go." Has she really ceased to care? Dudley must know and goes in hot pursuit, without even a sabbatical…. Back in our own SoHo at "the House of Usher" (a sadomasochistic sex show with Annabel Lee as dominatrix), Dudley, who has shown no sign of deductive capacity so far, suddenly puts it all together. This reader stared in...

(The entire section is 215 words.)

The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Symons has always given full measure. That is to say, he has never chosen to stand by ingenuity of plot alone; he also gives his attention to character, setting, and tone. In his new novel [The Name of Annabel Lee]—about a stiff British professor of English literature at a New England college who loses his habitual poise and balance in the arms of a transient English girl named Annabel Lee Fetherby—those qualities are present in abundance: in, unfortunately, an overabundance. The story is a good one—why Annabel Lee appeared and why she disappeared. But Mr. Symons has let his abundance run into irrelevancies—about the professor's former fiancée, now married to his father; about an old school friend...

(The entire section is 180 words.)