Just the Facts: Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder

Bloody MurderBloody Murder – From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History
Julian Symons
First published in the UK Faber and Faber Ltd, 1972
This edition 1975, Penguin
ISBN: 0140037942
270 pages

I continue my occasional series on non-fiction books with a review of Bloody Murder, a history of the genre by novelist and critic Julian Symons. It’s a book I should have bought years ago, as Symons is frequently credited with setting down the most authoritative narrative of the history of crime fiction.

A very sketchy version of that narrative goes like this (by the way, Symons makes a distinction between the crime story and the detection story, although he covers both).

Putting aside various foreshadowings, crime fiction began in earnest with William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), the Mémoires of criminal-turned-detective Eugène François Vidocq, and Edgar Allen Poe, ‘the undisputed father of the detective story’. As for long-form crime fiction:

There is no doubt that the first detective novel, preceding Collins and Gaboriau, was The Notting Hill Mystery [1865]

Dickens and Collins were the next great writers to make use of crime, with The Moonstone covered in most detail. There was a brief interregnum, but then the advent of popular periodicals such as The Strand created an ideal environment for serial novels and short stories, resulting in the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.

Holmes ushered in a Golden Age of the short story. Symons cites fictional detectives such as The Thinking Machine, The Old Man in the Corner, Max Carrados, and Dr Thorndyke, but reminds us that:

‘the metal is nine carat quality where the best of the Holmes stories are almost pure gold.’

And now Symons makes his controversial assertion: that the second ‘Golden Age’ of the 1920s and 1930s, an era dominated by the detective novel and ushered in by Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was essentially a creative dead end.

In those years the detective story reached peaks of ingenuity that have never since been attained and are now rarely attempted; and, sometimes in the same book, it dropped into abysms of absurdity and dullness that have never again been plumbed.

For this he largely blames the self-imposed rules of Detection Club and others:

There is no limit to folly, but it seems surprising that the intelligent men and women who devised the rules did not see that they were limiting the scope and interest of their work.

The inevitable breakdown of the Golden Age template led to the era of the crime novel – stories in which mechanical detection give way to psychological insight and an engagement with social and political issues. This is definitely a Good Thing (for what it’s worth, I agree with him in general).

He is particularly fond of the hardboiled school:

The Glass Key is the peak of Hammett’s achievement, which is to say the peak of the crime writer’s art in the twentieth century.

and calls Patricia Highsmith ‘the most important crime novelist at present in practice’.

Bloody Murder ends with a look forwards to the future of crime fiction, making largely accurate predictions about international authors and forensic stories.

Symons is a knowledgeable and acerbic historian of his chosen genre, and he isn’t afraid to name names…

With [R. Austin] Freeman we encounter for the first time the crime writer who produced work of no other kind, and whose talents as a writer were negligible. Reading a Freeman story is very much like chewing dry straw.

Agatha Christie’s book is original in the sense that it is a puzzle story which is solely that, which permits no emotional engagement with the characters.

[Freeman Wills Crofts] put his knowledge as a railway engineer to frequent although hardly to varied use.

…but he is also lavish with his praise. One good reason to read this book is for his recommendations, which are often quite obscure. Here are a few I’ll be looking out for:

  • Margot Bennett, The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955): Four men arrange to fly to Dublin, only three board the plane, which crashes over the Irish Sea.
  • John Bingham, My Name is Michael Sibley (1952): An innocent man struggles in an aggressive police investigation.
  • Roy Fuller, With My Little Eye (1948): Billed as a ‘mystery story for teen-agers’ but ‘a perfect example of a modern crime story’.
  • Cameron McCabe, The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor (1937) (‘a dazzling, and perhaps fortunately unrepeatable, box of tricks’)

As with all narrative historians, Symons left plenty of room for revisionism.

For example, a recent article by David Bordwell sets out a new model for the development of suspense fiction in the 40s, giving more credit to early female ‘domestic suspense’ novelists such as Mary Roberts Rinehart and Carolyn Wells (Symons damns them, saying they have ‘the air of being written specifically for maiden aunts’), and the movies (Symons is remarkably quiet about film).

And Symons’ overarching thesis trapped him at times in oversimplication and sweeping generalisation. Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp blog has re-examined Symons’ evaluation of the Golden Age novelists he called ‘Humdrum’, amongst other things pointing out a significant bias towards emotional rather than intellectual engagement. I recently received a copy of Curt’s Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, and will be reading it this month.

Finally, for a crime novelist, Symons has a peculiarly unambitious view of the genre.

…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.

But overall, this is a valuable book which should find a home on every crime fan’s bookshelf – as a reference and as a background to the books we read today.

Final destination: A keeper

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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13 Responses to Just the Facts: Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder

  1. A pretty fair assessment Rich for a book of which i am a greta fan (ghence the tribute in my choice of URL). The Symons, together with its near contemporary book by Barzun & Taylor (for which I have a lot less sympathy) had the virtue of being published very early on, which has made them incredibly influential but has probably made both books particularly vulnerable to critique. I agree with most of what Symons says, which is purely a matter of personal taste, but find it fascinating that his book can still generate such vast amounts of heat – I can think of half a dozen blogs which have berated his book just int he last month! It’s probably worth mentioning that Symons revised the book several times and knew that many people would not share his point of view on many topics and some very popular authors (Dorothy L Sayers and James Ellroy for instance) and was aware that he was, by writing a purely personal history, leaving out almost as many authors as he was including. In the end, this is the book of its type that I go back to the most often – probably because it is the best written, not because he is always right. As you say, there are inevitable over-simplifications in such a slim volume, one written without access to computer retrieval systems (or even gasp, the Internet), but it is always a pleasure to read.

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  2. curtis evans says:

    If I ever get my survey done, I’ll be making the argument that Symons missed a lot of the diversity in the Golden Age detective novel. People were breaking free of various conventions quite a bit in the 1930s. You see some of this in my books Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, which you mentioned, and Clues and Corpses, my collection of Todd Downing crime fiction reviews from the 1930s. You’ll be seeing it again, I think, in the collection of essays in honor of Doug Greene that I’m editing.

    Symons’ creative life in genre writing began in rebellion against puzzle-oriented detective fiction. The Symons forces won the battle. Now some of us tend to look more fondly on the “classical” detective novel, when it is a far rarer thing.

    I think Symons was too dismissive of science in the detective novel. I find R. Austin Freeman’s tales fascinating.

    Symons also could be oddly dismissive of women writers, when you think about it. He’s really pretty underwhelmed by Allingham, Marsh and Sayers (particularly the latter) ans quite dismissive of Ethel Lina White, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Anna Katharine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Christianna Brand and so on. He gave short shrift to women sensation novelists. I would agree with him about Carolyn Wells, however–I’ve read a dozen or so books by her and all were terrible save one! Bill Pronzini considers her an alternative classic (good for being bad), see his Gun in Cheek.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      Picking up on one of those women writers, I was amazed that Christianna Brand merited only a brief name-check – not even a paragraph.

      And he’s definitely down on science. In his (largely accurate) predictions for the future he says: ‘The revival of entrancing facts about rigor mortis, or even about the unique nature of hairs or carpet threads, as the most important features of a crime story, seem very improbable.’ Tell that to the CSI: Wherever writers struggling to spend their piles of cash.

      (Bit of an unfair quote to pick up on, I know)

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  3. TracyK says:

    I was very interested to see this review, because I have had this book for ages and not read it. I do want to read it, I am interested in all mystery critiques, whether I agree with them or not. I like opinionated critics, just because it shows they have a passion for what they read.

    I just recently purchased a copy of My Name is Michael Sibley so I can see if Symons and I agree or disagree on that.

    You have written an interesting and enjoyable evaluation.

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  4. westwoodrich says:

    Amy Cockram at Stuff and Nonsense has just shared two letters she received from Julian Symons – seems like a nice guy.
    http://cornishamy.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/my-letters-from-julian-symons.html

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  5. Patrick says:

    The thing about BLOODY MURDER is that it’s the best book of its kind.

    The other thing about BLOODY MURDER is that due to Symons’ selective, biased, and opinionated nature, it started a bunch of misconceptions which go unchecked to this day. What particularly infuriates me is how dismissive so many crime authors are of Agatha Christie, constantly apologizing about her popularity and putting her work down, even though it’s varied and quite impressive. Whenever I see an author do this they are immediately crossed off my reading list.

    But Christie’s popularity lives on. She was far luckier than Henry Wade, one of the most fascinating authors of the Golden Age, but one that Symons groups with the likes of Crofts and Rhode as a “humdrum”. It seriously makes me doubt whether Symons read any of Wade’s work: more likely, he saw that the author’s real name included a title and a hyphenated last name and that Barzun & Taylor liked him in ACOC, so he made stuff up on the spot.

    However, to give Symons credit, he knew his stuff… unlike P. D. James, whose TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION makes so many mistakes I don’t know where to begin criticizing it. Even when she talks about THE PURLOINED LETTER she seems to be talking about a completely different story, she misses the point so badly!

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  6. Pingback: Pick of the month: April 2013 | Past Offences

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