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