Julian Symons – Bloody Murder: From the detective story to the crime novel (1985 Rev. Ed.)
Part 2 of 3, by Stephen Randorf.
Mr. Symons, in Bloody Murder, outlines three Golden Ages. The first is that of Sherlock Holmes during the early 1900’s. This period was a boom for short stories as well as the beginning of the “Superman” type detective. I would like to mention here that one of Mr. Symons’s strong points, besides the long list of writers he familiarizes us with, is how he shows their interconnectedness, how each writer fits into the historic timeline of the crime writing genre.
With regard to the first Golden Age, Mr. Symons insightfully points out how the sprawling urbanization of London and the increase of daily commuters who wanted something other than long novels to read on their short train trips into the city, contributed to the popularity of the short story. These commuters soon came to prefer magazines with stories of a certain length, those whose reading-time would engage them for the duration of their commute, and could be concluded by the time they reached their destination (Symons 86). The Strand Magazine soon became available at the book stalls and supplied this need. Of course it contained the latest stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Would either the magazine or Sherlock Holmes have been as successful without the other? Probably, but that’s not how history works, the two were together and the success of one bred the success of the other.
The crime solving techniques of Sherlock Holmes put him in the category of the Superman detective “with no emotional attachments and little interest in everyday life” (Symons 74). He had two immediate successors: the American Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912) with his detective Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, known for The Thinking Machine (1907), which his character was; and the British G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Many of Mr. Futrelle short stories are available to sample at his website (http://www.futrelle.com). The odd fact about Mr. Futrelle is that he was on the Titanic when it went down. He was in mid-career as a writer at the time.
It was not only Mr. Doyle’s stories that appeared in The Strand Magazine. There were also the Max Carrados stories by Ernest Bramah (1868-1942), which some say were more popular than Sherlock Holmes. What made Mr. Bramah’s private investigator Max Carrados different? He was blind, a blind detective, as in Max Carrados (1914) and The Eyes of Max Carrados (1923).
And then there were the “Plain Man” detective stories, also in The Strand. As Symons says, these stories presented the detective more as a common man or “Plain Man” rather than a “Superman” (82). Arthur Morrison (1863-1945) featured such a “Plain Man” character, Martin Hewitt, in his stories published in The Strand Magazine. One such story was “The Stanway Cameo Mystery,” which Symons recommends (82). This story is also available at Project Gutenberg and can be found in the collection titled, Martin Hewitt, Investigator (1904). Another author who wrote in the same vein was M. McDonnell Bodkin (1850-1933), whose “Plain Man” character was Paul Beck. As Mr. Bodkin quotes his character, Paul Beck: “I just go by the rule of the thumb, and muddle and puzzle out my cases as best I can” (qtd. in Symons 82). Surely, not the “Superman” as was our Mr. Holmes.
If most of these references sound a bit British, it’s because they are. So let’s refresh ourselves with a few unfamiliar American names before we go on to another Golden Age. We have Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935), who is cited as the first woman in the US to write a detective novel. This was in 1878, The Leavenworth Case (Symons 60). I sampled a selection of her short stories and, considering they were written a hundred years ago, they too read well. I found the publication date of The Leavenworth Case of 1878 interesting since Doyle’s first Holmes story wasn’t published until 1887, although written the year before. Another American writer who dealt with crime and murder was Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958). She found success and acclaim with her second novel, The Circular Staircase (1908). Symons pointed out that her stories had a set “pattern” with “the air of being written specifically for maiden aunts, and they exploited a market which, with the spread of library borrowing, proved very profitable” (89-90).
Soon after that, we have Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries (1918) by Melville Davisson Post (1871-1930). These stories were set in pre-Civil War Virginia, and Symons claimed that their plots were “distinctly American,” which, as he says, would account for the lack of readership in the UK (Symons 81). To put these American writers in an historical timeline, we should remember that Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was not published until 1920.
I will skip over Hammett and Chandler, so much is written already. Symons deals with them under the chapter heading, “The American Revolution.” He also includes in this chapter James M. Cain (1892-1977), W. R. Burnett (1899-1982), Cornell Woolrich (1903-68), who Symons did not prefer because of the “continuous high-pitched whine of his prose” (129). Jonathan Latimer (1906-83) was also in this period. It was this “American revolution” with writers like Hammett and Chandler who “made the hard-boiled crime story respectable” and brought along a flurry of writers into the thirties (130).
With a brief interlude to discuss Georges Simenon’s “well rounded” Maigret (135), Symons quickly moved the narrative on to describe how the writers of another Golden Age, particularly those who were popular in the thirties, survived the changing times of the post-war period (WWI). How well did the characters Ellery Queen and Hercule Poirot do? Symons thought Agatha Christie adapted well to modern times. As he says, Agatha Christie did “better than most of her contemporaries” (140), and that “Poirot was intelligently modified” (140). And Margery Allingham’s (1904-66) well-bred Albert Campion? Symons thought that her detective, like the later Ellery Queen, “belonged to an earlier time and a different tradition” (141). He also found, in general, most of Ngaio Marsh’s (1899-1982) novels lacking because she “avoided emotional problems” of her characters (141).
Again, what I appreciate most in Symons’s Bloody Murder is his analysis. As he summarizes the new mood of the post-war period and the decline of the Superman detective, he states: “The attitude of the new writers were different. They wanted to combine popular entertainment with a study of ‘people and problems’, and often they felt that an investigator was out of place” (143).
Included in the chapter titled, “Crime Novel and Police Novel” he differentiates the two by setting up parallel columns to show how the main features (plot, method, clues, setting, etc.) vary between the two, the old and new (Symons 163). I’ve included a brief example of this:
DETECTIVE STORY CRIME NOVEL
Only the detective is characterized The basis of the story. The lives of
in detail. Otherwise characteriza- characters are shown continuing
tion is perfunctory, particularly after the crime, and often their
after the crime when people subsequent behavior is important
become wholly subsidiary to plot. to the story’s effect.
In this chapter, he also declares that Patricia Highsmith (1921- 95) as “the most important crime novelist at present in the practice” (165) and if you are not familiar with her, perhaps it is because “American critics . . . have been slow to recognize outstanding homegrown talents” (165).
To be continued.
Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf