Classic Crime

Julian Symons

Julian Gustave Symons (pronounced Simmons) was born in London on the 30th May 1912 a British crime writer and poet. He also wrote social and military history, biography and studies of literature.

Julian Symons was born in London to a Russian or Polish-born father and an English mother of French and Spanish antecedents. Symons left school at 14. He founded the poetry magazine ‘Twentieth Century Verse’ in 1937, editing it for two years. After World War II, Symons spent a period as an advertising copywriter before becoming a full-time writer in 1947. During his career he won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and, in 1982 Symons received the MWA's Grand Master Award. Symons served as the president of the Detection Club from 1976 till 1985.

Symons's 1972 book ‘Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel’ (published as Mortal Consequences in the US) is one of the best-known critical works in the field of crime fiction. Symons highlighted the distinction between the classic puzzler mystery, associated with such writers as Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, and the more modern crime novel, which puts emphasis on psychology and motivation.

Symons published over thirty crime novels and story collections. His works combined elements of both the detective story and the crime novel, but leaned clearly toward the latter, with an emphasis on character and psychology which anticipated later crime fiction writers such as Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. As with his recently re-issued novel, ‘The Colour of Money’, his novels focussed on ordinary people drawn into a murderous chain of events. This same style can be found in other books such as the Edgar-winning ‘The Progress of a Crime’ (1960), ‘The Man Whose Dreams Came True’ (1968) ‘The Man Who Lost His Wife’ (1970) and ‘The Plot Against Roger Ryder’ (1973). Symons' crime fiction is highly prized by connoisseurs, even if these days his work is less well-known to crime readers.

Symons wrote two modern-day Sherlock Holmes pastiches, as well as a pastiche set in the 1920s. In ‘A Three Pipe Problem’ (1975), the detective was "...a television actor, Sheridan Hayes, who wears the mask of Sherlock Holmes and assumes his character. Symons was known as a critic of crime fiction and could be quite forthcoming with his reviews. He also wrote many non-fiction books about Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and her books and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. One of Symons’ most well-known novel is ‘The Blackheath Poisonings’, an historical mystery which was adapted for television. His series of ‘The Man Who…’ novels and short stories also created an anthology of short stories by other authors who wrote their own ‘The Man Who…’ stories. In 2006 the U.S. publisher Crippen and Landru published the complete stories featuring Francis Quarles Symons died on the 19th November 1994.

Review: The Colour of Murder

John Wilkins has a good, secure job and is married, but he is totally disillusioned with his marriage to May who, despite coming from a common background, is a snob and is only concerned her husband furthers himself at work and enables her to have a comfortable lifestyle. May has already stated she does not want children and also does not care for the weekly visits to see John’s mother and despises his Uncle Dan who lives with John’s mother. May is a cold woman and it is no surprise that the tender and warm Sheila from the local library starts John’s obsession with this young woman who is the complete opposite to his emotionally cold wife.

Soon, John’s obsession with Sheila causes him to act irrationally and take chances such as taking Sheila out to the theatre. More and more John dreams of escaping his ties with May and finding love and warmth in the arms of Sheila. As his desperation heightens, John’s blackouts become more frequent, leaving him without any recollection of where he has been or what he was doing. This also happens on the night when murder touches everyone’s lives.

This is definitely a book of two halves, ‘Before’ and ‘After’. The first half chronicles John’s decline in himself, his marriage and his work environment. In some parts this felt a little laboured and at points I did feel Symons become a little repetitive. It was great to understand the background to the crime, but felt it could have been edited a little more to make it tighter. However, this is a smart snapshot of the 1950’s which found a nation still finding its feet after WWII and despite being liberated in some instances, was still quite Victorian, especially values of the heart and what was deemed impropriety. There were not such strict rules on having a chaperone when dating, but there were still lines in the sand that shouldn’t be crossed until after the wedding!

My favourite piece is when John’s manager, Gimball acidly ‘celebrates’ John’s promotion when Gimball retires in a few months’ time. In Gimball’s office, he brings out the sherry and two glasses and with a wonderful impression of a Victorian maiden aunt, advises John that when entertaining clients, if the sherry is brought out, then he should go no higher than ‘the pretty’… meaning no further than the decorated part of the sherry glass. Symons is adept at bringing these snapshots to life within his books.

The second part of ‘The Colour of Murder’ feels more like a mystery novel as Symons brings us a courtroom drama. Who was killed on that Brighton seafront on that dark night? Who issued the laugh/cry which one passerby described as having the ‘colour of murder’ in it? This second part is the stronger of the two halves and motors along much fluidly than the first.

Symons has been described as the precursor to psychological writers in the same vein as Ruth Rendell and like Rendell this is a slow burn of a novel. Some readers may feel the conclusion is a little coincidental, but it certainly leaves you with many questions as to the fate of the accused. I haven’t read Symons for some years now, and it was great to be re-introduced to his work via the outstanding series from Martin Edwards and the British Library. ‘The Colour of Murder’ definitely stands the test of time simply down to Symons’ heartfelt and acute writing.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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