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Symons, Julian 1912–

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Symons is a British mystery novelist, critic, biographer, poet, short story writer, editor, and playwright. His work portrays the corruption and moral decay of contemporary society, often using the crime novel as a vehicle for examining, in Symon's words, "the violence behind respectable faces." Critics have cited the influence of W. H. Auden and of surrealism on his poetry. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Christopher Pym

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It is difficult to fault [The Progress of a Crime, a] shrewd, sardonic account of how, in our time, murder quite easily gets done; how a case is handled in the cells and in the courts; what life is like on a local newspaper; and what a newspaper peer sounds like at the Fleet Street end of a telephone. Among the cynical go-getters, the brutal and the wayward, a young reporter and his girl keep a flag or so flying without being at all sentimentalised over. This is one of the truest and most sensible (and, because of the spare, brisk writing, one of the most compellingly readable) English crime novels for years.

Christopher Pym, "It's a Crime," in The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 205, No. 6892, July 29, 1960, p. 192.∗

Anthony Boucher

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Julian Symons seems to be deliberately trying, in ["The Belting Inheritance"],… to see to what extent a first-rate professional can animate such moldy stencils as the will-changing old lady and the long-lost claimant who may be an impostor. His success is astonishing, especially in view of the fact that he sets himself the further problem of writing from an 18-year-old viewpoint. This exercise in virtuosity (especially brilliant in its scenes of a young man's discovery of Paris) is far removed from the serious novels of character and society which we have come to expect from Symons—but it is highly enjoyable on its own terms.

Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 21, 1965, p. 12.∗

Patrick Cosgrave

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[A three pipe Problem] is historically based … in a contemporary sense: the action takes place today. But the detective is Sherlock Holmes! Rather, he is an actor named Sheridan Haynes who is playing the great detective in a long-running TV series, and occupies a flat in Baker St provided by the television company as part of their publicity drive. Haynes is, too, a Holmes connoisseur: he knows the books intimately, and he treasures the values they represent, as well as the skills of the great detective. In many passages of fine and ambiguous writing Mr Symons almost makes Haynes over into Holmes. Finally, jeered at by his colleagues, and mocked by his unfaithful wife, Haynes turns detective, and applies the methods of Holmes to the solution of a mysterious series of murders. There are many fine things in the book—including meditations on the changed condition of London, which are especially beautifully done—but perhaps the finest is the way Mr Symons maintains the balance between Haynes's rather dotty ambition, which could so easily have toppled over into farce, the real seriousness of the crime, and the application of the actor's considerable intelligence to its solution. The book is a tour de force of a most uncommon kind; and the best thing Mr Symons has done.

Patrick Cosgrave, "New Developments," in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 234, No. 7656, March 22, 1975, p. 345.

As his title ["A Three-Pipe Problem"] so nicely suggests, Mr. Symons entertains us here with a neo-Sherlock Holmes adventure. There is a series of apparently related killings in London—today's London—and an enterprising reporter elicits from a television actor starring in a Sherlock Holmes show the observation that Holmes would have been easily able to solve the case. The ensuing newspaper jeers drive the actor to play his role offstage. The result is a most enjoyable confusion that sees the Holmesian method pitted against both the elusive murderer and the scornful technicians of Scotland Yard. Mr. Symons also obliges us during the crucial climactic hours of his story by producing a fine, anachronistic pea-soup fog.

"Books: 'A Three-Pipe Problem'." in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LI, No. 15, June 2, 1975, p. 112.

Allen J. Hubin

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Julian Symons does not repeat himself: each novel stands alone on its own credentials, which are usually impressive. Thus The Blackheath Poisonings …, "A Victorian Murder Mystery." So effectively does Symons conjure up the Blackheath suburb of London, with Albert House and Victoria Villa and the family that lived and died—of arsenic—there in the 1890's, that the join between fiction and history is seamless. (pp. 11-12)

Allen J. Hubin, "AJH Reviews: 'The Blackheath Poisonings'," in The Armchair Detective (copyright © 1979 by The Armchair Detective), Vol. 12, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 11-12.

Steven R. Carter

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Julian Symons has helped to increase the range and worth of crime fiction in many ways. For example, his crime novels, like Ross Macdonald's, combine ingenious plotting with psychological and social probing. In addition, he has a gift, like Nicolas Freeling, for wry humor and satire. However, the variety of his forms and techniques goes beyond that of any other crime writer. He has written conventional detective novels (Bland Beginning, Bogue's Fortune, The Belting Inheritance), a detective fiction parody (The Immaterial Murder Case), a political thriller (The Broken Penny), several psychological crime novels (The Man Who Killed Himself, The Man Whose Dreams Came True, etc.), some nightmarish portrayals of modern society (The Thirty-First of February, The Players and the Game, etc.), some acute social satires (The Plain Man, The End of Solomon Grundy), and a humorous novel about a contemporary incarnation of Sherlock Holmes (A Three-Pipe Problem). The success of many of his experiments in the form has shown that the mystery need not constrain a talented writer either technically or thematically. His main contribution to the crime novel is that he has proven how flexible a vehicle it is for presenting a personal vision of the stresses of modern western civilization….

Symons is disturbed most by the narrowing of personality through western civilization's excessive emphases on order, respectability, mechanical routine, and material "success"; by lack of communication stemming from inhibitions of narrowed personalities, from efforts to maintain respectable images, and from fears of facing difficult and unpleasant issues; by society's moralistic attempt to eliminate relatively harmless games (sexual and otherwise) which offer an "unsuitable" release from social tensions; and by the lack of sufficient alternatives to the stresses of civilization. All of these serious concerns, appropriate for mainstream fiction, are treated in depth in Symons' crime novels….

In Symons' eyes, the preference for money and social status over such things as spontaneity, creativity, meaningful work, etc., is a destructive one. A large part of the horror at the end of The Narrowing Circle comes from the reader's awareness that Dave Nelson is killing an essential part of himself by his decision to accept the sleazy material success which an ulcer-ridden entrepreneur offers him. (p. 57)

One other major way in which personalities are narrowed in Symons' crime novels is through submitting to routine…. In a symbolic scene in The Thirty-First of February, "a small regiment of black Homburg hats marched down Bezyl Street." The scene leaves little doubt that the men beneath the hats are cogs in a machine. Significantly, Anderson wears a hat while he is attached to the agency, but misplaces and eventually loses it when he is jogged out of his mechanical life into chaos and irrational terror. It is also noteworthy that Inspector Cresse, who is described as unimaginative, always keeps a firm hold on his bowler hat. (p. 58)

One of the most intriguing and unusual aspects of Symons' work is his stress on games….

In Symons' eyes, games often serve as safety valves which enable people to endure the various pressures which civilization places on them and to cope with their insecurities. This function is extremely important since, as the company psychologist in The Players and the Game argues, "anything that causes insecurity is a breeding ground for crime" and "the 'bad elements' in our society are the ones on whom the greatest pressures have been applied." (p. 59)

Symons has implied often that anyone might become a criminal by being subjected to too much pressure, by having insufficient outlets for release from pressure, or by surrendering to his fantasies….

Next to The Players and the Game, the universal vulnerability to forces from within and without is suggested most strongly in The Man Who Lost His Wife. For example, in the scene in which the young hitchhiker David confronts the obnoxious Jerry Painter on a lonely stretch of road and points a gun at him, he laments that "it's so damned easy [to murder]. They shouldn't make it so easy." Except for his temper, David seems a decent person, but he is sorely tempted to kill Painter because of his abuse and his sudden hate-filled decision to leave David and his girlfriend stranded. It couldn't have been a touchier situation; at that point, it would have taken little to make David pull the trigger. (p. 60)

Symons places little emphasis on heroism in any form since he believes that all men contain a mixture of strengths and weaknesses and can be broken under too heavy a strain. He does, however, display a limited respect for the "heroic" labors of groups, provided that each individual shares in the responsibility and can make significant contributions to the final result. (p. 61)

Steven R. Carter, "Julian Symons and Civilization's Discontents," in The Armchair Detective (copyright © 1979 by The Armchair Detective), Vol. 12, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 57-61.

As the title ["The Blackheath Poisonings"] suggests and the subtitle ["A Victorian Murder Mystery"] proclaims, [this novel] is a period piece, but it is a period piece so thoroughly yet unobtrusively of its intended period that it would seem to be the work of a contemporary hand. The setting is the villagey London suburb of Blackheath in 1890, and the story involves a large middle-class family living amiably on two neighboring estates…. All are comfortably supported by the family business, a toy manufactory, and the lives of all appear to be uneventfully serene. Then the son-in-law dies of a suspiciously acute indigestion, but the family physician (a definitive dodderer) signs a natural-cause death certificate. Then the matriarch rises in pain from the supper table, and dies unequivocally of arsenic poisoning. Here, most emphatically, is a book to relish. (pp. 66-7)

"Books: 'The Blackheath Poisonings'," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIV, No. 46, January 1, 1979, pp. 66-7.

Jack Sullivan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280

In "Mortal Consequences," his distinguished study of detective fiction, Julian Symons states that the best Victorian mysteries were those that assumed memorable characters and stories to be as important as ingenious puzzles. "The Blackheath Poisonings," Mr. Symons' own attempt at a Victorian mystery, makes the same assumption, with delightful results.

Mr. Symons' 1890's setting is described in intricate detail but also with a sense of fun and wit….

Obviously, a considerable amount of research has gone into "The Blackheath Poisonings."… But the book never seems pedantic: with 17 novels to his credit, Mr. Symons does not need to show off. His period details—especially the marvelous quips about Wilde, Shaw and other members of the Victorian avant-garde—are always used to enhance a scene or advance the plot. Eschewing the clichés of historical novels, Mr. Symons manages to create a convincing Victorian ambience without a single pretentious epigraph or wordy history lesson….

Indeed, every aspect of "The Blackheath Poisonings" is graced with intelligence and restraint. The style is an admirable compromise between Victorian leisureliness and modern conciseness: without pretending to be Victorian, it reproduces the feel, and occasionally the syntax, of the period. The characters are sharply drawn, especially young Paul Vandervent, whose journal entries on death and loneliness are surprisingly poignant, and whose humanity keeps the novel's complex ratiocination from lapsing into mechanical trickery. The minor grotesques—including a bumbling, self-serving doctor and a pious teetotaling vegetarian—are also a treat. Most satisfying of all is Mr. Symons' ability to tell a story and sustain suspense.

Jack Sullivan, "Grotesques and Villains," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 4, 1979, p. 14.∗

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