Julian Symons – Bloody Murder, Part 3

Julian Symons – Bloody Murder: From the detective story to the crime novel (1985 Rev. Ed.)
Part 3 of 3, by Stephen Randorf.

I was hoping to wrap this up in two parts but, as you can see, I got carried away with earlier authors and I never did reach the point of mentioning Symons’s impressions of the more current writers in this genre, which I will do now. But first, let me pause for a second to give a spoiler alert. Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder was revised and republished in 1985, which means no discussion of Ian Rankin, no Sue Grafton, no Elmore Leonard. Gorky Park, yes; but no Dan Brown or James Patterson.

It does mean that a good discussion of Rene Raymond (1906-1985), better known as James Hadley Chase or by his other pen-name Raymond Marshall, is included. After reviewing Raymond’s list of novels, he is apparently another one of those writers who had no life except for the one in front of the typewriter. Unfortunately, as Symons comments, “At worst the writing in his books is shoddy, at best like a secondhand James M. Cain” (199). In regard to Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) and the crude violence he saw in the novels, Symons says, “The most nauseating and disquieting thing about these books is that Mike Hammer is the hero” (202). There is enough information available (including YouTube) regarding the author, Mickey Spillane, and his novels that one can form his or her own opinion. Symons is also less kind to the one-time popular Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) whose work he says “may appeal to readers with a mental age of twelve” (202).

More space is devoted to Ed McBain, who fairs better in Symons’s opinion. There is also Ross McDonald, and the mention of George V. Higgins (1939 – 99) who he claimed had written “the most interesting and extraordinary recent work in the crime story” genre (175). This includes The Digger’s Game (1973) and Cogan’s Trade (1974). Of course Symons does discuss the works by P. D. James and Ruth Rendell as well as the Superintendent Andy Dalziel novels by Reginald Hill in good detail.

Under the chapter heading, “Big Producers and Big Sellers,” Symons goes on to mention about 20 plus writers, giving them about a paragraph or two each. And then, finally, we have “A Short History of the Spy Story.” In Symons’s typical fashion, he starts with the earliest, James Fenimore Cooper, but quickly goes on to discuss William Le Queux (1864-1927) and his spy novels, which took place during the time when “France was regarded as the prime danger to British security until the end of the nineteenth century when it was replaced by Germany” (215-16). Of course, there is mention of Graham Greene (1904-91) and his use of the thriller genre and how he “sometimes loads it with a weight of meaning that is too great for the form to bear” (Symons 222). After Bulldog Drummond he goes on to discuss the more current Eric Amber, Ian Fleming, John Le Carré, Anthony Price; and the adventure novels of Dick Francis, Gavin Lyall and Lionel Davidson.

In the 1972 edition of Bloody Murder, Symons made a few predictions regarding the crime novel genre. As he states, he attempted to “look into the crystal ball and predict the course of crime stories during the following ten years” (234). In the 1985 edition, he comments on how accurate those predictions were, that is, after the ten years had elapsed. In his concluding chapter, Symons states:

   There seems to me no doubt that since the end of the Second World War the crime
   story has interested more good writers than before, and that their approach has been
   more intelligent and varied, and their handling of criminal themes less trivial, than
   that of their Golden Age predecessors. Most crime writers produce too much, some
   exhaust their talent, but the best of the last decade shows that the vein still contains
   much gold (238).

I would like to point out that Mr. Symons (1912-1994) was a crime writer himself. Wikipedia has a long list of his works (novels, short stories, critiques, and biographies), most of which can still be purchased at your local used bookstore or favorite e-store.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the detective story to the crime novel. Rev. Ed. England:
  Viking, 1985.

Julian Symons – Bloody Murder, Part 2

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:

     Characters              Characters

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

Julian Symons – Bloody Murder, Part 1

Julian Symons – Bloody Murder: From the detective story to the crime novel (1985 Rev. Ed.)
Part 1 of 3, by Stephen Randorf.

Before I go too far and before everyone, anticipating a good book, rushes out to buy a used copy of Julian Symon’s Bloody Murder, let me be precise. It is the 1985 revised edition that I will be discussing. As the author states in the preface, “few pages are left unchanged” from the old edition. The author also states, “this is a record of enthusiasm and occasional disappointment, not a catalogue.” For the readers who are interested in expanding their reading knowledge of mystery and crime stories, this book does come close to being a catalogue. Mr. Symons was clearly well read. Although it may seem like the list of authors mentioned below is long, let me assure you, far more were discussed in his book, Bloody Murder.

I personally enjoyed reading his commentary on the early authors of the crime fiction genre. After the opening remarks on the detective novel in general, including a brief discussion of William Goodwin’s contribution, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), Symons moved on to the French, notably Eugène Vidocq (1775-1857) who wrote little other than his ghostwritten memoir, but he did play the role of the romantic criminal in life and then the keen-eyed detective. The use of disguises was routine in both of these roles. And he influenced many other writers, such as Honoré de Balzac who used him as a model for Vautrin. For those of us who read Balzac that alone will give us a good understanding of what Vidocq’s character was like. Another writer, Émile Gaboriau (1833-73), chose to emphasize the detective aspect of Vidocq in the novel Monsieur Lecoq (1880), concerning a detective of the same name.

Gaboriau gives us few details regarding his fictional detective’s personal life other than in the opening chapters, where there is a brief mention of the criminal aspect to Monsieur Lecoq. When this character, as a young man, is being fired, the employer says: “When one has your disposition, and is poor, one will either become a famous thief or a great detective” (Gaboriau 19). The fictional detective, Monsieur Lecoq, was an early practitioner of deductive reasoning and was presented as being quite the clever man, often outsmarting his superiors. The technique of making plaster casts of footprints in snow, as was done in Monsieur Lecoq, is attributed to him. I enjoyed Monsieur Lecoq and thought it held up rather well for being 300 plus pages, at least as well as anything else written during that time period, which would include Dumas’s Three Musketeers. Symons goes on to say later that Mystery of the Hansom Cab (1886) by the prolific New Zealand writer Fergus Hume (1859-1932) is “a reasonably good imitation of Gaboriau” (Symons 60).

Regarding Mr. Vidocq as criminal and criminologist, much credit is given to his attempt at categorizing the criminal, portraying them as specific types, recommending card files, folders, etc. He also started the first modern detective agency (Symon 31). For those who are interested in sampling Mr. Vidocq’s writings, there is a translated short story in International Short Stories – French (1910) titled “Jean Monette” that dealt with a bit of detective work. A client, Jean Monette, hires him to protect his daughter (from a Lothario) and his wealth (from a celebrated thief.) I believe the value of this story is in the long, expository telling and not in its ending. Without doing a spoiler, I will just say that someone was “pinioned” without any real fist-a-cuffs. This collection of short stories is a very good sampling of other writers during the 1800’s, although they are not particularly crime writers. We have short stories by Balzac, Maupassant, de Kock, Dumas, Le Sage, Hugo, Musset, and more. This collection is available for your e-reader free at Project Gutenberg, LibriVox, and Amazon.

I am particularly interested in how writers present urban settings, and for that, there are several longer works, Les Mystères de Paris (1842-43) by Eugène Sue and later, Mysteries of London (1844) by G. W. M. Reynolds. These two lengthy books describe city life and the criminal element of their time in a melodramatic fashion. Symons thought that the actual adventures in Les Mystères de Paris were “absurd” (Symons 33). I found it interesting that the descriptive scenes of the lower elements of the city, the late after-hour haunts, were similar in mood and character to those in Monsieur Lecoq. The melodrama, compared to our contemporary novels, is a bit dull. There is a little more suspense in Mysteries of London. The last time I read a story that made use of a fully functioning trapdoor was in a James Bond novel.

Before I move this discussion away from early 19th Century French authors, let me say that Symons does not mention Paul Féval (1816-87) or the novel Jean Diable (1862), which is considered as another early contribution to the crime genre. Perhaps, like me, he had trouble finding a translation. Féval spent most of his time on novels that dealt with swordsmanship or vampires. He was not alone in writing about the supernatural, Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73), an Irishman, wrote ghost stories. However, Symons credits Mr. Le Fanu, “as one of the most important originators of the crime novel, but in this respect he has never received acknowledgment” (59). He used Le Fanu’s 1871 short story “Green Tea” (also available at Project Gutenberg) as one example. The element of crime, which Symons found worthy of praise, was the author’s use of “psychotic disorders.” Of course now-a-days, the use of mental derangement as a motive is common place.

Symons also pointed out the transitions of the detective story through its various phases. In early crime stories “the criminal was often considered romantic and the policeman stupid or corrupt” (45). You can see this romantic element in the works I cited above, but Symons makes the point that as the police gained greater respect in society and became more competent, fiction writers gave them a larger role in solving cases. The detective who worked on these private cases, such as Sherlock Holmes, is part of this transition and so were Miss Marple and Father Brown (Hammett and Chandler for those of us in the US). Symons refers to this period as the Golden Age, the first Golden Age, he refers to several, and then the real police officers take over, those of Ed McBain, J.J. Marric, Mickey Spillane, P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, etc.

To be continued.

Gaboriau, Emile. Monsieur Lecoq. trans. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1905.
Reynolds, Francis J., comp. INTERNATIONAL SHORT STORIES, Volume 3: French
    Stories. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1910.
Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the detective story to the crime novel. Rev.
    Ed. England: Viking, 1985.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf


A Reason And Purpose For Being Here.

These thoughts, which I am presenting, are what happen afterwards, after we put down a good book. Of course, we are filled with many thoughts at that time and, as we all know, there are a lot of good books out there to put down, so I’ve decided to limit my selections to those that I think readers of crime fiction might be interested in and other books, which I believe, might need a little extra attention before they slip into that dark realm of obscurity. The reason for their being here, I hope, will be for what they have contributed to the discussion of writing and what I think will be of general interest to those who want to know more.

Yes, this will be subjective, and I expect most of you will skim through the topics with folded arms while sighing, “Hmm?” And, I have no doubt that this same sigh will be repeated when you realize that so few contemporary crime and mystery writers have been mentioned. Most, many, but not all, will be authors of the past. I, as a person who writes in this genre, find it difficult not to be influenced by what I read in matters of style and substance, so I feel more comfortable in reading the works of those who are more distant in time and/or language. But don’t assume automatically that a writer I have mentioned has passed away. I enjoy picking up a Lee Child’s book and selecting several pages to read at random to refresh myself on the technique of quick pacing or a short story by Ian Rankin to remind myself on how a good tale should be told. But in general, I prefer a Maigret novel by the French author Georges Simenon and the few translated works of Seicho Matsumoto. Both men’s prodigious output I view with great admiration. Of course, these books are read in translation, which I actually enjoy because I find that specific writing style to be clear, simple, and direct. I am sure that a good argument can be made that I am missing the author’s unique style of storytelling, which is probably correct, but it is that clear and simple translated style that I wish to emulate in my own work. As it is, whenever I pick up Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates (Suna no Utsuwa) to clear my head of convoluted sentences and add the pacing of simple words, and start by reading one of his short chapters, I inevitably go on to another chapter, and then another, and another. Well . . . I am sure you know how that ends.

The first couple of Afterwards will include discussions on Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, an excellent summary of the crime fiction novel’s history; and no doubt a little bit of Dostoevsky. Let’s not forget, his novels were crime novels. And I think a discussion on last century’s critic Edmund Wilson and the earlier Vissarion Belinsky (when author reviews meant something in society) would be interesting. Perry Mason? We haven’t heard that name in a while, other than in reference to the long running TV series. There were actual books written by Mr. Gardner. Wikipedia has over 80 works attributed to him. Most of the novels were published by William Morrow and Company. Perhaps there can be a comment or two regarding his writing style. And maybe Agatha Christi, if I find something to say about her books that hasn’t already been said. And what about our contemporary writers? Don’t worry, I’ll get to a few of those, as well. And, hopefully, any discussion concerning TV crime shows will be limited. I consider most television dramas to be the novel’s evil twin of the entertainment world.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf