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