Julian Symons: A Three-Pipe Problem


Sheridan Haynes is a TV actor with no great talent but a remarkable resemblance to Sherlock Holmes, which together with his life-long obsession for the Great Detective, made him a shoo-in for the role of Holmes in a TV adaptation. The show enjoyed acclaim and ratings for a few series, but is now on its last legs and is in dire danger of cancellation.

Sher, by the way, lives in a recreation of Holmes’s rooms in Baker Street (paid for by the TV company as a PR stunt), with his long-suffering wife Val. And he loves it – he wallows in Victoriana and hates the world of 1975, especially the motor car.

Then a rash comment in a magazine interview makes the headlines and Sher finds he has put himself forward as competition for the police. Someone seems to be randomly killing people with karate chops, and Scotland Yard has not yet managed to make any headway in the case.

After a bit of thought, Sher decides he may actually have a chance of solving the murders – against the advice of Val, his agent and his producer, all of whom think it will be a PR disaster. He plunges in amateurishly and begins to stir up trouble for himself, even as he finds some hitherto unnoticed leads.

It all sounds comic, but it’s handled very seriously. Sher is a figure of fun to all but his greatest fan, a traffic warden called Joe Johnson. His wife is unfaithful and he’s stopped caring. His Holmes purism is affecting the quality of his work and alienating his co-stars. And there are hints that he is losing his grip altogether as he consciously allows Victorian visions to submerge the real world.

This is an enjoyable book but I don’t think the set-up bears much scrutiny. I can buy the idea of a Sherlock Holmes actor investigating a crime as a misguided PR stunt. I can buy the idea of a Sherlock Holmes obsessive investigating a crime out of self-delusion. But I can’t quite buy the idea of a Sherlock Homes actor who is also a Sherlock Holmes obsessive investigating a crime. And who also lives somewhat improbably in a Baker Street maisonette containing a recreation of Holmes’s rooms. And whose name is so like Sherlock that people call him Sher. A bit too much in a tonally serious book.

And is this a pastiche or not? The murders are not Holmesian enough for my liking, and the suspects are entirely realistic – some East End gangland types in the early stages of all-out warfare. The touch of the bizarre which characterises the best Holmes crimes is missing. I expected something a little more Christopher Bryant (and things seemed to be going that way when Sher recruits his Baker Street Irregulars from a crew of traffic wardens), but it all ends up being quite ordinary and downbeat (I don’t mind downbeat, and Symons was good at it, but do downbeat and Holmes really go together?). Plus the solution relies on a link that is entirely down to chance.

On balance, this is readable but not classic. It gets some good reviews though, so I’m slightly paranoid that I’m missing something.

Julian Symons
A Three-Pipe Problem
First published in the UK by Williams Collins & Sons, 1975
This edition, Penguin Crime Classics, 1988
ISBN: 978014009030
192 pages
Source: M. & A. C. Thompson, Wymondham

See also:

Tipping My Fedora: The problem with most Sherlockian tributes and pastiches is that the stories are often weak and rely too much of popular and inaccurate conceptions of Sherlockian lore rather than going back to the original sources. Here the plotting is very firm and although there is a clear tongue-in-cheek element, Symons plays fair and doesn’t pretend that his characters don’t know that they are trying to recreate a fictional universe for themselves. Indeed, in this respect this feel like quite a modern text and Symons depicts his characters with utmost realism (very few of them are completely likeable as a result, sometimes exhibiting the casual racism and homophobia that would have been common at the time).

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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4 Responses to Julian Symons: A Three-Pipe Problem

  1. Well, I was more convinced that you clearly 🙂 but the balance of elements is only a question of degree I would venture, so could easily tip a bit one way or another depending on one’s own proclivities …


  2. realthog says:

    I felt much as you did, Rich, way back in the day when I read it. I’d expected to have lots of fun, or at least a jolly pastiche, like Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution the year before, but came saway from the novel feeling as if I’d sat down to a yummy-looking dish of biriani only to discover it didn’t taste of anything much. As you say, by no means a bad book, really, but one that fell so far short of what it could have been.


  3. prettysinister says:

    I enjoyed this book when I read it as a teen. But stay away from Symons’ other novel featuring Sheridan Haynes — THE KENTISH MANOR MURDERS. It’s overly complicated and imitates Edgar Wallace too much, IMO. My final paragraph in my review form 2014 sums it all up: “Overall, this book has a schizoid identity: one third bibliomystery, one third international thriller, one third detective novel with a murder mystery crammed into the last 40 pages. It’s not a bad book by any means, but for my tastes it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be.”


  4. Pingback: The ‘salivating male audience’: The #1975book round-up | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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