Julian Symons produced a body of crime fiction that moved beyond genre formulas with its emphasis on the artistic representation of a particular worldview, its exploration of the human psyche under stress, and its ironic commentary on a world in which the distinctions between the lawbreaker and the forces of law frequently blur into uselessness. Symons viewed the crime novel as a vehicle for analysis of the effects of societal pressures and repressions on the individual. Symons mainly concentrated on psychological crime novels that delineate what he called “the violence that lives behind the bland faces most of us present to the world.” Typically, his characters were ordinary people driven to extreme behavior, average citizens caught in Hitchcockian nightmares; the focus was on the desperate actions prompted by the stresses of everyday life. Symons expanded the limits of the crime novel, proving through his work that a popular genre, like orthodox fiction, can serve as a vehicle for a personal vision of Western society gone awry, of human lives in extremis.
Any assessment of Symons’s contribution to crime literature must include mention of his two histories of the genre: The Detective Story in Britain (1962) and Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972, revised 1985; also known as Mortal Consequences: A History, from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel). In both of these works, Symons detailed what he perceived to be a shift in both popularity and emphasis in the genre from the elegantly plot-driven classic detective story of the Golden Age of the 1920’s and 1930’s to the more psychologically oriented crime novel with its emphasis on character and motivation.