Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Simple Art of Murder

I’d like to welcome readers to another special edition of At the Scene of the Crime! Back in June, I collaborated with Sergio of Tipping My Fedora on a review of George Baxt’s The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case. Our views on the book were rather similar, but we approached it from two different vantage points: one that of a Baxt enthusiast (Sergio), the other of someone whose introduction to Baxt was far from pleasant (that would be me). So it seemed like a perfect plot to reunite with Sergio and collaborate on another review, as part of the 100th post extravaganza celebrations.

(What follows may seem like a non-sequitur, but bear with me.)

A few years ago, I picked up a copy of Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder. I’m not sure which edition I picked up, but I was never able to finish it (and my library got rid of it since). Symons then struck me as a condescending person who didn’t understand the fun of the genre, and his appraisal of several authors, including Dorothy L. Sayers, annoyed me. But all this time later, I’ve matured somewhat, and I was interested to see what impression would remain. Would I once again be annoyed by Symons? Or would I actually enjoy Bloody Murder?

Well, there was only one way to find out, and that was by reading the book. It then struck me that Bloody Murder would make excellent material for a crossover review with Sergio, who has expressed positive sentiments for Julian Symons and this book. And here we are today!

So let the repartee begin! Welcome back to the crime scene, Sergio!


Hello Patrick, and what a pleasure it is to be back At the Scene of the Crime once again, especially as it is to discuss what for me was a truly formative book. I first came across Julian Symons' Bloody Murder at the library in Horsham, West Sussex while visiting my grandparents in the UK as a pre-teen sometime around 1980. I'd already started reading Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler and came across this copy of the first edition at the head of the crime section. I have since read it several times and consulted it on countless further occasions - which is why I used it to name the URL for my own blog.

As one of the first books of its kind it helped lay the foundations for many a history of the crime and mystery genre and probably ranks, along with Barzun and Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime (published just the year before), as amongst the most influential. Symons does get a lot of stick in some quarters for what, as you pointed out, may be taken to be a somewhat atypical view of some authors - his is the perspective of an enthusiast with very definite ideas about what is good and bad in literature. He thus avoids many of the works he isn't particularly keen on and often criticises the ones he likes, which was pretty brave in one sense as he knew a great many of the authors he was discussing and was of course a prolific crime writer himself and was thus opening himself to almost inevitable reprisals from mystery authors who might have felt slighted.

Next year will be the 40th anniversary of its initial publication (Symons would update it twice in the following decades) - so does it hold up? Is Symons the blinkered and superior critic some accuse him of being, holding writers to unattainable literary standards? Or is this in fact a celebration of much that is great and wonderful about what John Dickson Carr called, 'The Grandest Game in the World'? Let's find out ...


It might be worth pointing out that the edition I have is the second edition, published in 1985. My copy is a softcover one, printed by our friends at Penguin, which I got from my usual bookstore. In the preface to the revised edition, my fears that this would be a pompous and condescending book were immediately addressed and practically vanquished. “I am an addict, not an academic, and this is a record of enthusiasm and occasional disappointment, not a catalogue. (…) This is a book meant for reading, consultation, argument, reasoned contradiction: but more than anything else I hope it will convince a new generation of readers that the best crime stories are not simply entertainments but also literature.”

First things first: Bloody Murder is a pretty good read. There were sections where I disagreed with Symons left and right, but overall, he is true to his word: this is not the work of an academic. (And after some of the readings I had to do in my English courses, I say thank goodness for that!) Symons sounds genuinely enthusiastic about his subject, and as a result, the book far more pleasantly read. Yes, Symons makes silly assumptions, his opinions can get very blunt at times, and there were several moments where I shook my head in total disagreement. But I read this book with enjoyment nonetheless.

And good gravy! Symons even has a sense of humour! My impression of this work never imagined including this aspect of it. There is only one section where Symons sounds like an academic, and that is when he goes on about psychological and social reasons for reading detective stories and crime novels. As someone who sympathises with John Dickson Carr’s famous anti-psychology stance (I wrote some thoughts on it when I reviewed Helen McCloy’s Dance of Death), I was bored out of my skull, especially when nonsense was being said about the murder victim symbolising the parent, the criminal symbolising the reader’s unavowed hostility towards the parent, and so on and so forth. And so, I ended up smiling when Symons went on to write the following:

Perhaps the reaction of ‘Plain Man’ readers may be anticipated: “So that’s why I read crime stories. And I thought they were just a bit of relaxation.’ It is a natural comment, but even Plain Men and Women should understand that there are social and emotional reasons for the kind of entertainment they enjoy.

It was at that point that I decided I liked the book, despite the many issues I had with it… but those will be discussed in due time.


In total Symons published three editions of this work, the final update appearing in 1992, just two years before his death. At its core though it remained largely unchanged - after a general introduction he sets out his own criteria for his appreciation, provides an interesting look at some of the books that he has consulted himself (from Haycraft and Barzun) and then follows a more or less chronological path from the antecedents in the Victorian era, through the Golden ages of the 20s and 30s, which he intriguingly separates out, into the postwar period, providing some fascinating information about the way reading habits changed in the teens and the impact this had on the genre in particular and the shift from the short story form to the novel as the predominant form in the marketplace. I continue to find this succinct summary a particularly satisfying and convincing delineation of how these changes came about.

I'm glad you like Symons' sense of humour because I think this is also a particularly well-written book, and also a pretty honest one - it's hard after all not to be disarmed by the section entitled, "Personal feelings and the double standard" and he does remind us over and over - even if you agree and especially disagree, the thing to do always is to read the books and stories for yourselves and not just lazily accept someone else's opinions - on the other hand, Symons was uncommonly well-versed on the subject - there is a lot to learn here I think ...


I thought the chronology had one major problem at its core—Symons kept insisting that the detective story evolved into the crime novel, but it seems to me like nonsense. After making the statement, he goes and discusses at great length novels that belong far more in the second category, like Bleak House. It was to me the major point of contradiction of the article. On the GAD Facebook group, someone offered an interesting perspective: Symons seems to have been trying to show that the detective story was some freak of nature that popped up between the two World Wars.

Another thing I find odd—although one of Symons’ goals is to convince people that crime stories can be art, he goes on to say this: “…even the best crime story is still a work of art of a peculiar flawed kind, since an appetite for violence and a pleasure in employing a conjurer’s sleight of hand seem somehow to be adulterating the finest skills of a novelist.” (Chapter 4) Near the end of the book, Symons reiterates: “In the highest reaches of the crime novel it is possible to create works of art, but because of their sensationalism they will always be works of a slightly flawed kind.” (Chapter 17)

I find this point of view highly annoying, and I wonder why mystery fans are so tolerant of critics who insist the genre is sub-literary, nothing but entertainment, or not on the same level as other genres. If you tried saying this about science-fiction in the middle of a sci-fi convention, I guarantee you’d misplace several teeth that evening. Why can’t mysteries (oh, pardon me, crime fiction) be art? I’ve reviewed several books, movies, etc. thus far on my blog, but only once have I bestowed the honour of calling a book “Literary Art”, when I reviewed Heir Presumptive. (I still stand by this statement.) The late William DeAndrea, in his introduction to Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, perfectly captured my feelings about the genre: “For a long time, there has been a school of criticism putting down mystery stories as ‘crossword puzzles in prose.’ This is nonsense, as the smallest familiarity with the genre will show. Mysteries range from light comedy to Grand Guignol, with every gradation in between, including that of (ahem) literary art. It happens rarely, to be sure, but it happens just as rarely in those rarefied circles of writing whose practitioners are shooting for art and nothing else. And in the mystery, the misses are still fun to read.”


I must admit, I never had a problem with the chronology since, while I tale your point, I don't see it as a flaw - BLEAK HOUSE is from 1853 so we are still talking about the prehistory of the form, which for Symons really begins with Wilkie Collins' THE WOMAN IN WHITE in 1860, which I think one would tend to class as a thriller and less of a mystery (because we know who the heroes and villains are in advance), and THE MOONSTONE, which was published 8 years later and which for Symons is the beginning of the detective genre with Inspector Cuff acting as the motor for the narrative in which it is he who has to solve the puzzle. Where I think you may be right to be suspicious of the reasoning is in following the trajectory from detective story to crime novel there is a tendency in the book to not really acknowledge the possibility of the path folding back on itself to create a more hybrid form - if you insist, as Symons does, that there is a historical pattern that supports the development of the genre and stimulates changes in the genre through societal changes (more people learn to read, books become more available, world wars decimate the male population and stories becomes increasingly marketed towards women readers, class boundaries start to become eroded etc etc), this is well and good if you believe that the crime novel is intended to be a more serious variant of the genre because it deals with crime and its roots and is not only concerned with entertainment. But that is less clear cut if we make a greater case for a more postmodern interpretation of the genre, for instance where the seriousness of intent can be more self consciously paraded without the need to apologise for wanting to also entertain since irony creates a buffer for the reader and the subject anyway.

This leads more or less to the main criticism of Symons (beyond his personal likes and dislikes which one is bound to challenge at some point), that the crime and mystery genre is itself an inferior form. Symons makes his position abundantly clear throughout the book, while at the same time attacking the likes of Auden and Edmund Wilson for their overly reductive view of the genre, yet states, I think reasonably that there are great attraction to the plots and puzzles to be found in the books we like especially from the GAD but that, as he says "... clever ideas and tricks are positive virtues, although they may be cancelled by writing that is crude and slovenly." This seems to me eminently sensible and it is not reasonable to compare a novel by Graham Greene of William Faulkner that uses the conventions of the mystery genre but reduce their great literary merits because they don't have plots that compare with Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr - it is true that they do not, but Greene and Faulkner are two of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century and, with all the best will in the world, Carr and Queen are not that, even if they did write some of the best detective stories of the twentieth century. This year I've read a lot more Ed McBain than John Irving but I am in no doubt as to which is the finer novelist when it comes to illuminating the human condition and deal with universal themes in an original way.

I think one of the great things that have changed in a positive way since the first edition of Symons' book came out is that the genre has expanded and that writers can use the form for their own ends successfully without fear of being ghettoised into a genre straightjacket or be accused of slumming it. You are right that mystery authors have put up with that kind of superior crap in a way SF writers have not, but I will also say that the genres have tended to develop in less than equal ways - SF has always been a more literary genre by dint of its ability to deal with more complex themes which are hotwired into the conventions of the genre (who are we, where do we belong in the universe, is God real, am I real etc etc) so it was attractive to distinctive writers looking for original ways to express their ideas, not something you would often accuse Agatha Christie of - on the other hand, pulp writing is pulp whether its SF, crime, Western, horror or romance!

Although I'm jumping the gun a bit here, let me finish with an example from the third edition, where he includes a brief look at the work of James Ellroy, which Symons absolutely loathed for its staccato, comic book style - I really like some of Ellroy's books, but I don't actually disagree with Symons - the style is grating and vulgar and tiresomely repetitive - but this is also intentional on Ellroy's part and I admire him for it even if I find reading his stuff quite exhausting. It's a different kind of writing and think works in its own way. Which is to say: Symons isn't wrong about Ellroy, I just don't agree that it is an impediment to appreciating what the author is trying to do or just following the serpentine paths of his remarkably complex plots.


Symons is correct; Golden Age novels can often have sloppy, melodramatic, or just plain bad writing. For instance, Anthony Wynne has creative plots but combines it with a writing style that everyone more or less agrees has no personality or humour to it. The key detail here, though, is that many Golden Age authors wrote an incredible output of books. If you write three-four books a year for two decades, odds are that they won’t all be literary opuses. The plots may be brilliant but the writing sloppy, or vice versa... but that won’t apply to everything you write, either.

What constitutes literature? Is John Irving, praised in critical circles, really such a great author? I’ve read a handful of his novels and highly disliked everything about them… except for the writing style, which was beautiful and reminded me of Dickens. Writing style is a key part of a novel, but it’s not everything. Irving’s characters are rather one-note, stupid, shallow, and annoying, and his plots make sense only if you can swallow the characters and their often silly actions. In The Cider House Rules, Dr. Wilbur Larch decides that Homer Wells will succeed him as the abortionist at St. Cloud’s. But Homer doesn’t believe in abortions! That doesn’t matter; after 500 pages of a stalemate, Irving simply makes a sympathetic character turn out to be a disturbing man who rapes his daughter just to convert Homer, who can only be what Larch and the author has decided he will be. It's artificial, anti-climactic, and it makes all those pages you've read seem pointless. When “real” literature (according to critics) is that hopeless, it makes the term “sub-literary” sound like a compliment.

Discrimination should not be shown to mysteries on the literary level— coming up with a good plot and then hoodwinking the readers with it is a challenge that few are up to. It can be an art form of its own, and when combined with good writing, it can really elevate it to a whole new level of literature. Heir Presumptive, which is probably my favourite book I've read this year, starts as an inverted murder mystery, and then it throws in a puzzle plot element. But add plenty of character development and social commentary to the proceedings, and you get a book quite unlike any other! When I recently reread my review, I could still feel the enthusiasm dripping from my words.

One of John Dickson Carr’s greatest strengths, in my eyes, was his frankness that he was simply trying to entertain instead of writing Great Literature. And yet, I think John Dickson Carr could have written great literature if he’d wanted to. Think, for instance, of that stunning opening sequence from The Bride of Newgate, where Carr touches upon the injustices perpetrated in the past due to social standing, and then goes on to have a brief discussion on the nature of faith! It’s something that wouldn’t have disgraced the pen of any “serious” author. And yet, Symons goes on to say the following: “In 1950, however, The Bride of Newgate ushered in a series of inferior detective stories that were also historical romances of a disastrously slapdash and extravagant kind.” None of these seem to apply to The Bride of Newgate or, say, The Devil in Velvet. It’s in a case like this where I wish Symons would expand on his views a little more. What, pray tell, is so slapdash about Newgate?

And there are plenty of other objections along the way. Some are minor, some less so. For instance, why does Symons include Father Brown among the Superman detectives? To me, this makes no sense, as Brown’s ordinariness and country-bumpkin appearance is emphasized throughout the series of tales. Father Brown solves his cases through knowledge of human nature he’s acquired in his capacity as a priest; after sitting in the confessional all those years, there is not all that much that could shock him now. He hasn’t gotten superhuman abilities from God, he just uses common sense. That doesn’t sound like a Superman.

While I’m on a roll, I might as well mention one more thing Symons was stunningly wrong about, this time when talking about Father Knox’s ‘commandments’: “Knox, never one to resist facetiousness, thought that no Chinaman should appear in a story, a remark unintelligible except on the basis that he would not be a likely member of any English murder group.” The statement has once again been misinterpreted for Symons’ own benefit: the real reason “Chinamen” were not allowed was because the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer were wildly popular, and the sinister Chinese person makes for an all-too-easy cop-out ending, right up there with the secret passage, the killer you’ve never met before, and the randomly introduced identical twin. (This total misconception would reappear in P. D. James’ Talking About Detective Fiction, although James seemed to misunderstand the statement even more than Symons.)


I'm sorry Irving doesn't do it for you and GARP is one of most treasured reads - the characters are often truly maddening (especially Garp's mother), but changing my opinion about her as the novel wore on was one of the great reading joys of my life. And I would also say that the subtle way in which Irving suggested some of the tragedies actually used the kind of sleight of hand we adore in Mysteries (especially Ellery Queen's), in this case the stratagem of not referring to a character for a long stretch. In a mystery we can be often correct in assuming it's because the authors wants us to forget they even exist so that we will be surprised when they make a sudden re-appearance (usually as the murderer) - in GARP it's because their life has been extinguished and it's incredibly moving when you gradually realise the reason why the name of a character is no longer in use - which is to say, technique has its uses, and dexterity is a great thing, but some effects are potentially more meaningful than others and more worthy of critical approval. Symons certainly didn't like Carr's later use of time travel and I agree he is way too harsh - I love THE DEVIL IN VELVET and am a big fan of FIRE BURN too!

Symons’ point about Brown is surely to do with the level of non-terrestrial guidance he ascribes to his detective faculties I suspect, which I think is a fair point -  and if he is critical of the tendency to proselytise in Chesterton, one should not forget that he is also very fulsome in his praise, calling the first two collections " ... among the finest short crime stories ever written.". As for Chinamen, let's just say you are both right - Orientals were discriminated against heavily both in literature and in life at the time and Knox's edict is facetious (which Symons points out) and insulting and racially insensitive all at the same time! When Knox wrote his decalogue, Charlie Chan was already a popular figure in fiction after all so I think it is right to question the stupidity of the edict - which is not to say that you're wrong about the Sax Rohmer influence of course. But you are taking that bit out of context as Symons was trying to make a point about just how socially Conservative GAD writers were at the time, which is hardly a controversial assertion after all ...


But what Symons does is omit or misinterpret things that would put his statements in doubt. I really don’t believe Knox was being racist. I see it as a misguided attempt to discourage the exploitation of Chinese people, who were often portrayed as evil people trying to take over the world. (Hence the “Yellow Peril” craze.) In fact, G. K. Chesterton, once a president of the Detection Club, praised Earl Derr Biggers for creating not only a likeable Chinese character, but a Chinese detective in Charlie Chan.

The biggest rap on the knuckles Symons gets from me is for not doing his homework in regard to Henry Wade. Twice, he dismisses Wade as Humdrum, and both times, it seems clear to me that Symons did not read Wade at all, he just wrote the automatic negative to whatever Barzun wrote. He practically says as much: “… the almost similarly disregarded Henry Wade is called ‘one of the great figures of the classical period’ and awarded seven pages of considerable praise. If you are rapturous about Rhode, worshipful of Wade, Barzun should be your guide. Obviously my point of view is so much opposed to his (what Barzun finds entrancing I think dull) that we have no common ground on which to argue.”

This stunning oversight has already been discussed on the GAD Facebook group, but I feel the need to reiterate. I find no criteria whatsoever for classifying Henry Wade as Humdrum, and I think if Symons actually read his books, he’d have loved them… although Wade contradicts several generalisations Symons makes about the genre! In No Friendly Drop, he has a detailed butler character, who is not simply there to provide a red herring or comic relief. In the same book, he criticises the aristocratic family: the wife who lives for luxury, the son who is like a mindless automaton, the son’s wife who married for a good name and her own ambition. In Heir Presumptive, the aristocratic family rose from doing good in trade, but much of the current generation feeds off the work of the older generations, doing nothing for themselves. There are some exceptions, like the invalid Desmond, and we are given reason to doubt some of the portraits (like Captain David) as they are seen from Eustace’s point of view… but the first two victims are never given such moments. Wade, himself a nobleman, didn’t revolt against his class, but I think he saw something wrong with the people in it and transferred it to his books. If Symons was stunned to see T. S. Eliot’s name in a Nicholas Blake novel, think how gobsmacked he’d have been over this kind of work in a supposed Humdrum!


First off, let me state that I'll have to recuse myself from any debate over the merits of Wade as either a humdrum or not as I have never read his work - Symons makes it quite clear that many, other than just Barzun, rate his work very highly, as do you - the point is that he didn't discuss it in detail. I am not convinced that it is reasonable to assume that Symons was ignorant of the man's work or simply being a contrarian with regards to Barzun; I believe Symons was both honest and remarkably well read in genre and non-genre fiction and through his 80+ books proved, certainly to my satisfaction, that he was a serious critic who was more than entitled to his opinions whether we share them or not. The quote you have was one added to the second edition and Symons was noting some of the negative comments that he had received from the original book's publication for not detailing the work of writers like Wade and Rhode - he doesn't go out of his way to say they are bad, he just doesn't think they are that good either. I think that's a reasonable position when you are writing a personal history and not trying to put together a comprehensive encyclopedia. When you compare BLOODY MURDER with, say, William L. De Andrea's ENCYCLOPEDIA MYSTERIOSA, a book I am greatly fond of, it is actually quite hard to find the author in the latter actually expressing really negative views on much since the format requires that you cover a lot of ground, not just what your like, and that is a major difference between the two publications. De Andrea of course was well known for the forcefulness of his opinions, especially in his 'J'Accuse' column for the late lamented 'Armchair Detective' magazine, so it wasn't that he couldn't but just that there wasn't enough space - Symons does the same, by simply not spending time on writers he considered not to be of significance to his general argument. I don’t see this as a flaw, I think it is inescapable in the circumstances.


Sergio, I’m not sure if you understand me here. Symons seems to have been well-read in the genre, and of course his work was never meant to be comprehensive like Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. However, he seems to think Henry Wade is the same kind of skilled technical detective story writer as John Rhode. But in the books I’ve read, there hasn’t been a sign of this. There are no crazy contraptions to swipe the Queen’s underwear at precisely midnight; in fact, although the poisoning in No Friendly Drop seems impossible at first, the solution is pretty pedestrian, relying on a piece of information nobody thought to ask about. This is why I doubt whether Symons ever read Wade— Freeman Wills Crofts, the king of the alibi-breakers, would have been a far better example to use where he used Henry Wade. If you read some Wade yourself, which I unreservedly recommend, you may see what I mean.


Symons does include Crofts amongst his list of 'humdrums' - maybe you and Symons just read different books from Wade's two-dozen or so books - but I cannot comment here so I shall bow out.


Raymond Chandler
After all this criticism, it should be said that Symons is an excellent critic under one condition: that the work is of the kind he likes. Otherwise, he tends to be unfair, cursory, and somewhat rash in his judgements. He somewhat strikes me like Raymond Chandler; both have moments of stunning insight, but both are better critics of the work they like. I would like to point out this one bit where Symons absolutely destroys Raymond Chandler with an ironic sense of humour:

“Chandler might say that ‘those who say the problem overrides everything are merely trying to cover up their own inability to create character and atmosphere’, but often in his early books the atmospheric brilliance that came to him as naturally as breathing is used to cover up his inability to devise a plot.”

Perhaps Raymond Chandler said it best, in a moment of surprising insight on the genre, which Symons records near the start of the book: “Chandler himself was evasive when asked who was ‘the best mystery writer’, replying: ‘Can’t answer, too many types. By sales Gardner and Christie. Can’t read Christie, Gardner close personal friend. Carter Dickson I can’t read but others love him … Best plodding detail man, Freeman Wills Crofts. Best Latin and Greek quoter, Dorothy Sayers … This is a lot of nonsense. You have to agree on definitions and standards.’”

But  it’s in that last sentence where you find the rub…


Symons quotes Chandler but disagrees about the idea of there having to be 'definitions and standards' simply because it eliminates the subjective - this is quoted very early in the book of course, as part of setting up his thesis statement, but I think it remains a generous and honest move - he explains what he admires most about mystery books, where his preferences lie within the genre, and then tries to explain his point of view - i don’t see how he could do anything else and I can find no evidence in the book to suggest that he was unkind or tried to mask knowledge - does he make any significant factual errors to suggest any lack of reading on his part? I don't believe so but I am definitely open to being persuaded.

Chandler of course is a fascinating case - ultimately Symons believes that THE GLASS KEY and THE MALTESE FALCON are superior to anything Chandler ever accomplished, this at a time when Chandler was by far the better known novelist. He also makes the point that you mention, that the plotting in THE BIG SLEEP is often a little loose, though one should exaggerate this point - the story about the movie makers on the 1946 version of THE BIG SLEEP asking Chandler who killed the chauffeur and his answering that he didn't know is meant as a humorous anecdote - the chauffeur committed suicide in fact, but the point is that in Chandler's work whodunit is really not that important, though I still thought the final reveal of the villain in THE BIG SLEEP and the disposition of the body to be very well handled - Symons also says that Chandler's plotting improved and that in THE LITTLE SISTER and THE LONG GOOD-BYE the plots are" ... as smoothly dovetailed as a piece of Chippendale."

Symons also deserves a lot of credit for helping to resurrect the works of several writers who had fallen into obscurity such as John Franklin Bardin, Cameron McCabe and Helen Eustis which I think is a really notable bi-product of this book.


With comic detective stories, Symons shies away from such excellent stuff as Robert L. Fish, Craig Rice, and others with little explanation. I can understand why he’d dislike the work of Elliot Paul, whose novel Mayhem in B Flat was not a mystery but a framework for craziness… but for the life of me, I can’t understand why he put Craig Rice in the same league as him. Home Sweet Homicide is a masterpiece of the genre, and The Corpse Steps Out is a close second place; plus she’s never a dull author and she was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time magazine. I’d have thought that would’ve merited more than a one-line brush aside. Similarly with Holmes parodies, instead of pushing them aside with “a shudder”, I think Robert L. Fish’s brilliant stories deserved a look, as they’re based on only the soundest logic, but half-facts… it’s like a twisted version of Doyle’s own How Watson Learned the Trick.


Although I have read too few of Rice's novels, I was always sorry that Symons didn't make time for writers like her and Stuart Palmer - or even better, Fredric Brown who doesn’t even rate a mention - this does happen a lot in this book, no question about it - he does say very nice things about Crispin so it's not about not having a sense of humour as such - oh well...


I think Symons’ arbitrary divisions of authors are not a very wise move, splitting them into entertainers and serious practitioners… and for some reason placing H. R. F. Keating in the “entertainers” section, among the other curious choices. That being said, Symons does recognize that much of the divisions are artificial, but it still doesn’t seem to me like a particularly fair way of approaching all those authors he comes to near the end. There are times when you wish Symons was more in-depth about what he wants to say—what is so hectic about Christianna Brand’s writing, for instance?—but at least Symons is honest about his purposes. He is not there to write a catalogue, but to record his preferences. Too bad the City Limits reviewer didn’t understand that when they called the book “staggeringly comprehensive”.

But now we come to the fun part (for me, at least): when Symons gets enthusiastic about an author, he really gets enthusiastic! He showers praise on Anthony Berkeley, for instance, particularly for his work as Francis Iles. I generally agree with him here; Berkeley, as I’ve written before, deserves far more recognition than he’s gotten to date. He foresaw the direction mysteries were taking and tried to lead the way, and he did a pretty good job in my estimation. He also devotes an entire chapter to Georges Simenon, but at the same time, he has some curious reservations about the short length of Simenon’s novels affecting whether it can be considered art or not. His positive words on Ruth Rendell are intriguing, but what particularly fascinated me was his appraisal of Margaret Millar. “Among the crime writers who have come into prominence since the war she has few peers, and no superior, in the art of bamboozlement. She presents us with a plausible criminal situation, builds it up to a climax of excitement, and then in the last few pages shakes the kaleidoscope and shows us an entirely different pattern from the one we have been so busily interpreting.” Can’t you just feel the enthusiasm? Sure, he adds the qualification “at her best”, but these words about Margaret Millar were the straw that broke the camel’s back. I have heard many good things about her, but now I am particularly anxious to read one of Millar’s books, particularly How Like an Angel, which Symons analyses and praises considerably, all in an intriguing way. It’s a testament to the author when his words have made my mind up for me about which Margaret Millar novel I will read first.


Millar was a great writer so you have a real treat in store and STRANGER IN MY GRAVE is probably up there with the best of them - I plan on reviewing THE FIEND on my blog shortly so shall say no further - but I agree that Symons' enthusiasm is usually infectious and rarely misplaced - the first Millar book i read (THE LISTENING WALLS) was picked up immediately after finishing BLOODY MURDER way back when so I think I had the same reaction as you here.


When Symons is as enthusiastic as he is about Millar, I can almost forget the many disagreements I have with him; if I were to list everything I disagreed about, we’d be here for a week. “This is a book meant for reading, consultation, argument, reasoned contradiction” wrote Symons in the introduction, and as we proved by sitting here and talking about it, it accomplishes just that.

Patrick's Rating: 3.5/4

Overall, out of four stars, I’d give Bloody Murder 3.5. It is entertaining and informative, but it’s also a fascinating personal look at the genre. It has flaws: sometimes Symons is too dismissive of authors I have a high opinion of, and sometimes he makes erroneous statements and assumptions… but overall, it’s a highly enjoyable work that mystery fans should acquaint themselves with. And when I read this excerpt from the third edition of the book, it’s hard not to admire his sheer honesty, no matter what the disagreements I have with him are:

"When this new edition appeared I was eighty years old, and my views may be attributed simply to the hardening arteries of old age. I hope and think that is not true, but am conscious of swimming against a strong prevailing tide. No matter what logical arguments are raised among them, the popularizing Philistines will have their way in the next few years. Strip cartoon writing will become more prevalent and be praised for gritty realism, more unsilenced lambs will raise their sado-masochistic cry. Perhaps there will be also the kind of books that equal the best of the writers I admire, but swimming against the tide is a tiring and unwise practice for the old.

O Moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye

run the lines of Brecht's haunting lyric, and I take them to be good advice. I shall rest reasonably content with what I have done and not done, and make no more additions or revisions to Bloody Murder. It is time to say goodbye."


I give the book five stars as I still think that it is an excellent guide, and not just for beginners - if nothing else, I think we have proved that there is still much in it to stimulate debate and discussion - as always Patrick, a privilege.
Sergio's Rating:

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)


  1. The cover you have for the hardback edition, the one in red, is the one I read circa 1980 (not quite in a land far, far away but ...).

    Happy 100th Patrick.



  2. Thank you, Sergio! Writing this was a blast. :)

    Incidentally, if anyone tried reading this when the formatting was completely off (dark colours for the fonts, no pictures, etc.) I apologise. This was due to an error I experienced when posting, but it's fixed now. :)

  3. An excellent debate, gentlemen. The book should perhaps be taken as a personal agenda rather than an objective overview of the genre (which it is sometimes taken for). I'm not fond of the book overall, although I must say that Symons' THE GREAT DETECTIVES is one of my favourite crime books.

  4. Interesting read. I don't believe the Chinaman prohibition had anything to do with Charlie Chan. Do we even have any evidence that Knox was aware of the Biggers books when he laid down his rule? Not all American books were that well known in Britain. What was very well-known was the Oriental master criminal in English thrillers, of which Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu was the most (in)famous. Since these characters were racist caricatures, in my view, arguing for a their prohibition can be seen a positive step in that context! Though I guess we could criticize Knox for failing to appreciate that a "Chinaman" could be presented in a nuanced, nonracist way.

    But this gets a larger point that Symons fails to appreciate, I think: that a lot of the rules were designed to distinguish the "highbrow" detective novel from the "lowbrow" thriller that was so popular at the time. Knox's rules aren't really anti-literary, in my view (unlike Van Dine's--Van Dine specifically prohibits literary and stylistic flourishes--Knox doesn't really do that). The rules, as put forth by Knox, are, I think, compatible with more literary style--unless you think fair play detection is necessarily incompatible with good writing. But Marsh seems to have managed it, for example, in Surfeit of Lampreys, and Chandler, say, in The Lady in the Lake. And there's nothing in these books incompatible with Knox's rules, is there?

  5. Nicely done, gentlemen! Thanks for this in-depth job. Although I, too, take exception to Patrick’s attack on John Irving. I'll spare you a mini dissertation on why I think THE CIDER HOUSE RULES is one of his better books. It was written as his homage to Dickens who is Irving's idol in all of literature. However, I don't particularly care for anything Irving wrote after THE FOURTH HAND.

    About time your guys start writing about Margaret Millar! ROSE'S LAST SUMMER is a favorite of mine. Brilliant piece of devilish misdirection -- though when it was televised on an episode of "Thriller" the tricks were sadly transparent. Shows how some stories can be work perfect on paper and use words to misdirect and befuddle the reader, but once the same story is transferred to a performance so much is lost and often so obvious.

    For some reason Symons' book was re-titled MORTAL CONSEQUENCES when it was published in the US. I have a copy but have never read it cover to cover. I used it for reference prior to finding Barzun & Taylor’s Catalogue of Crime and Murder for Pleasure by Howard Haycraft.

    Unlike Symons who gives short shrift to so many fine American mystery writers Haycraft covers a wide spectrum: American, British and even European writers. Haycraft's book is a fascinating historical read of the genre when it was still young and because it places the Golden Age writers (then mostly "modern") and their popularity in a contemporary 1940s context. So many writers who are out of print and forgotten come up in conversation in Haycraft's book and I still use it as a guide to hunt down the best of the more obscure mystery authors. You ought to hunt down a copy - perhaps via an Ontario library. The book is priced as a "collector's book" via the on-line booksellers unfortunately, though it may be possible to find a copy for under $15.

  6. Sextonblake, I find myself agreeing with you. The reviews on my copy of the book call it "staggeringly comprehensive" and so on, but it's a very personal look at the genre. Symons admits as much.

    Curt, well-said. I wish I'd thought of phrasing it like that.

    John: you're really starting to predict how I can get books. Wilfrid Laurier University and Guelph's University both have copies of Haycraft's book, and yes, I placed a hold. Thanks for directing me to it; it sounds very interesting! Also, I have no idea where I read this, but I recall reading that Symons actually liked "Mortal Consequences" better as a title.

    As for Margaret Millar, the GAD Facebook group was in a furore about her a while back. I'm in the middle of a book right now, but if Paul Halter's "The Fourth Door" doesn't come in, "How Like an Angel" will follow.

  7. I only just got around to reading this enormous review, and it literarily dwarves the one we've been assiduously penning together! Anyway, I'm afraid the two of you haven't bend my opinion on Julian Symons in one way or the other. He might cover his ass by saying that he's merely recording his enthusiasm, but the stunt he pulled when he landed himself a job as editor of Penguin is unforgivable and shows the despicable character of a self-appointed censor. I tried looking up the source, but I can't find it anymore – so I posted an enquiry at the GAD group.

    But I will attempt to read one of his books somewhere in the near future. I need some target practice. ;)

  8. TomCat, I have no special knowledge about Julian Symons or any axe to grind - never met the man, just like his books. I am trying to understand where your criticism really stems from here - he was only in charge of the Penguin mystery list for a few years (1974 to 1979) so I don't know quite what unforgivable thing he is supposed to have done - he just did what anyone would do and included titles that he thought were good and excluded ones he didn't think were good - what's so strange about that? In the 1970s the publishing lists altered quite a lot as companies became more vertically integrated and a lot of material was no longer available to print or reprint in paperback by Penguin unless they had the hardback rights too. This above all had a big effect on what they were putting out, irrespective of what Symons personal tastes were - and again, he was a huge fan of Carr, Queen, Crispin, Philip Macdonald etc., so was not, as far as I am aware, exacting some kind of vendetta against the so-called humdrums. Why do you think he was?

  9. I don't really know much about publishing house history, so I'll leave the floor open for anyone who does know about it to answer. However, Symons really did enjoy several GAD authors like John Dickson Carr, despite his reservation about length. He tends to focus more on the Brits, which is somewhat disappointing since the Americans tend to get passed over (with some exceptions, like Ellery Queen, whom he also likes a lot).

    The only time I seriously question his enthusiasm was when he kept praising "The Face on the Cutting Room Floor" while everything he praised about the book sounded hackneyed. For instance, it not only uses the oldest twist in the book, it has to use it *twice*!!!

    I'll post your inquiry on the GAD Facebook group, TomCat, and see if any members there can provide an answer.


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