Julian Symons Symons, Julian (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Symons, Julian 1912–

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 962 words.)

Jack Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗