Everyone’s a critic: In praise of Julian Symons

Julian Gustave Symons (1912-1994) was a poet, novelist and scholar and published over 80 books in his lifetime. These include biographies of Dickens and Carlyle as well as studies of Hammett, Christie, Conan Doyle and Poe. During the 1970s he edited the mystery list for Penguin and for decades was the best known crime critic in the UK. In 1972 he published the first edition of Bloody Murder, a personal history of the detective story. This blog’s web address is named after that seminal publication.

In an exchange of views with Patrick over on his At the Scene of the Crime blog, as part of a celebration for its 100th post (congrats!), he and I have debated Mr Symons’ venerable history – those interested to watch the fireworks should click here.

I have added further comments on Symons here, beneath the fold (so to speak) …

Along with crime and mystery novels – which range from whodunits to police procedurals – he also wrote volumes of poetry in his early years. He was both a populariser (he was a regular broadcaster on TV and radio) and a champion of the mystery genre; but also took the view that it should be more than a mere entertainment to be considered literature. In 1957 he compiled a list of what he considered to be the 100 top mystery books and you can access that list in various places online, including here.

As an author, journalist and critic Symons was extremely varied and eclectic, as would befit a man with such an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. He wrote short short stories featuring Francis Quarles (these were originally for publication in newspaper and have been collected by Crippen & Landru in The Detections of Francis Quarles) that are essentially little vignettes featuring small problems in deduction; he was also responsible for several books in a much more realist mode such as The Thirty-First of February (1950), The Progress of a Crime (1960) and The End of Solomon Grundy (1964); but also wrote historical mysteries as well as more ironic tales like The Man Who Lost His Wife (1970; one of several ‘The Man Who …’ books); amongst his cleverest triumphs one should remember the fiendish clever puzzler, The Plot Against Roger Rider (1973), as well as a particularly entertaining Sherlock Holmes pastiche, A Three-Pipe Problem (1975), in which the great Detective does not in fact appear and yet is ever-present. I came across Bloody Murder at an early and impressionable age and it turned by reading habits around – I owe a great deal to Mr Symons’ taste and erudition, and will always be grateful. Through this blog I tip my hat to him and the genre that he loved and celebrated.

Julian Symons’ basic bibliography is as follows:

  • Confusions About X (1938)
  • An Anthology of War Poetry (1942) editor
  • The Second Man (1943)
  • The Immaterial Murder Case (1945)
  • A Man Called Jones (1947)
  • Bland Beginning (1949)
  • Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson (1949) editor
  • The Thirty-First of February (1950)
  • A J A Symons: His Life & Speculations (1950)
  • Charles Dickens (1951)
  • Thomas Carlyle. The life and ideas of a prophet (1952)
  • The Broken Penny (1953)
  • The Narrowing Circle (1954)
  • Criminal Acts (1955)
  • Horatio Bottomley (1955) biography
  • The Paper Chase (1956) as Bogue’s Fortune (US)
  • The Colour of Murder (1957)
  • Carlyle: Selected Works (1957) editor
  • The Gigantic Shadow (1958) as The Pipe Dream (US)
  • The General Strike – A Historical Portrait (1959)
  • A Reasonable Doubt (1960)
  • The Progress of a Crime (1960)
  • The Thirties: a Dream Revolved (1960)
  • Murder! Murder! (1961)
  • The Killing of Francie Lake (1962) as The Plain Man (US)
  • Buller’s Campaign (1963)
  • The End of Solomon Grundy (1964)
  • The Belting Inheritance (1965)
  • Francis Quarles Investigates (1965)
  • England’s Pride: The Story of the Gordon Relief Expedition (1965)
  • Crime and Detection: An Illustrated History from 1840 (1966)
  • Critical Occasions (1966)
  • The Man Who Killed Himself (1967)
  • The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968)
  • Essays & Biographies by A.J.A. Symons (1969) editor
  • The Man Who Lost His Wife (1970)
  • The Players and the Game (1972)
  • Between the Wars (1972)
  • Notes From Another Country (1972)
  • Bloody Murder – From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History (1972) (US title: Mortal Consequences)
  • The Plot Against Roger Rider (1973)
  • A Three-Pipe Problem (1975)
  • The Angry 30s
  • How to Trap a Crook (1977)
  • The Blackheath Poisonings (1978)
  • The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1978)
  • Verdict of Thirteen: a Detection Club Anthology (1978)
  • Conan Doyle – Portrait of an Artist (1979)
  • Sweet Adelaide (1980)
  • Edgar Allan Poe Selected Tales (1980) editor
  • Great Detectives – Seven Original Investigations (1981)
  • Agatha Christie – the Art of Her Crimes (1981)
  • Critical Observations: Diverse Essays (1981)
  • The Detling Murders (1982) as The Detling Secret (US)
  • The Tigers of Subtopia (1982)
  • The Name of Annabel Lee (1983)
  • New Poetry 9, an Arts Council Anthology (1983) editor
  • Classic Crime Omnibus (1984) editor, stories
  • The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple (1985) as A Criminal Comedy (US)
  • Dashiel Hammett (1985)
  • Two Brothers. Fragments of a Correspondence (1985)
  • Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature, 1912-1939 (1987)
  • Oscar Wilde: A problem in Biography (1988)
  • The Kentish Manor Murders (1988)
  • Death’s Darkest Face (1990)
  • Somebody Else (1990)
  • The Thirties and The Nineties (1990)
  • Portraits of The Missing: Imaginary Biographies (1991)
  • Something Like a Love Affair (1992)
  • Playing Happy Families (1994)
  • Criminal Practices – Symons on Crime Writing 60s to 90s (1994)
  • The Man Who Hated Television (1995)
  • A Sort of Virtue: A Political Crime Novel (1996)

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19 Responses to Everyone’s a critic: In praise of Julian Symons

  1. Patrick says:

    Apologies to anyone who tried reading it when the formatting was completely off-key. My Blogger account seems to resent any attempts by me to time a post to come at a certain time. All my hard work in formatting was lost, and I had to redo it. Still, our discussion was wonderful and hopefully, it won’t be the last!

    • Hi Patrick, well, I must admit, I ended up trying several browsers first and then it all seemed to get better at last! My goodness, we certainly went in to a lot of depth there!

      Congrats on your celebrations – I’ll be reviewing Millar’s TH FIEND shortly as my own 100th blog post – looks like we are more or less in tandem with the Puzzle Doctor – very good company I’d say!

  2. Roger says:

    His brother, A.J.A Symons wrote the classic biography The Quest for Corvo, about a real-life criminal- among other things.

    • Hi Roger, thanks for adding that as I had meant to pint to the fact that Julian wrote a biography of his brother Alphonse James Albert in 1950 and later also edited a collection of his essays – I’ve always been fascinated by the comparatively rare phenomenon of siblings writing about each other’s lives.

      • Roger says:

        “the comparatively rare phenomenon of siblings writing about each other’s lives”
        Well, one of them has got to die young enough for the other to be able write about them but old enough to be worth writing about, and the other has got to be good enough as a writer to get published,
        It limits the field somewhat.

        • Point taken Roger, though I suppose I was referring to instances of one brother or sister writing about another, not necessarily though when the other’s life is over which stands up as literature and not just as some kind of family therapy in print – I was thinking of David Eggers’ ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ for instance.

  3. Dhiraj says:

    All about provanances. Your blog is a revelation.

  4. Mike Ripley says:

    I only got to know Julian towards the end of his life, meeting him about five years before he died, when I was crime fiction critic for the Daily Telegraph, and found him always interesting in his views and always interested in what others had to say. I did once make the mistake of asking him what he thought of my crime novels and he told me (instantly and forcefully) that he didn’t like them, as I didn’t “take the puzzle element” seriously enough. His honesty, however, did not stop us being friends and discussing crime fiction at every opportunity. I know he was pleased when I wrote somewhere that I had much enjoyed his dated, but well-constructed spy thriller “The Broken Penny”, though it was only after his death that I learned he had been a big friend of George Sims, the antiquarian book-dealer and crime writer, who took over Julian’s library after his death and whose novel “The Terrible Door” I republished as a Top Notch Thriller in 2009. i think Julian would have approved.

    • Hello Mike, great to hear from you. In chatting with Patrick we both got the feeling that Julian Symons was often a bit hard on crime novels of a more, shall we say, humorous disposition perhaps. I haven’t read the Sims so I shall look out for that – many thanks, as always.

  5. John says:

    Wow. He was prolific and eclectic in his writing, wasn’t he? Seeing it all in one long list is intimidating. I’ve read only three of his books all when I was in high school many decades ago: THE 31st OF FEBRUARY, A THREE PIPE PROBLEM and — I think –THE BLACKHEATH POISONINGS (I vaguely recall taking it out of the library when I was teenager, but don’t’\ remember a thing about it). I own a copy of MORTAL CONSEQUENCES (the US title for Bloody Murder) but have never read it cover to cover. I’ve used it mostly as a reading guide and reference book.

    Very much enjoyed the duo-logue at Patrick’s blog. Looking forward to the Margaret Millar celebration. (Let’s hear it for the Canadian mystery writers!) I may join the two of you with a review or two of my own. She’s always been one of my favorites since I read THE MURDER OF MIRANDA and shortly thereafter BEYOND THIS POINT ARE MONSTERS – once again when I was a teenager. I have a nice 1st edition collection of some of her better books (A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE, THE IRON GATES, THE LISTENING WALLS among others). I’ve said it elsewhere and will say it again – her husband gets all the accolades and she is always overlooked. Really sad because she was more of a pioneer in the genre than he was in my estimation. In her time she was very popular and I think a bestselling author, too.

    • Hello John, I think you have actually sampled some of the best of Symons and I agree wholeheartedly about Margaret Millar and I think we agree on which her best books are too. You are right of course that she was initially by far the most successful of the two, but in the 1960s when his popularity took off she almost stopped writing completely, with no new fiction published from 1964 to 1970 and then nothing again for another 6 years. On the other hand, I think Macdonald deserved all the accolades he got but that Margaret Millar deserves to be much better known. Maybe we can all pitch in and do something about it, as you say. I am blogging on her and her book THE FIEND this weekend and will take the opportunity to look at her work in some sort of retrospect

  6. TomCat says:

    Sergio, I have read and commented on your collaboration review with Patrick and I will try to read one of his books in the not so distant future. If only because I need the target practice. 😉

    • TomCat, good to hear from you mate – and if you do get to read some more Symons (I really recommend A THREE-PIPE PROBLEM, THE PLOT AGAINST ROGER RIDER and the ‘MAN WHO …’ series), I hope you also get some positive things out of the ‘experience’ – looking forward to reading about it.


  7. Pingback: THE FIEND (1964) by Margaret Millar | Tipping My Fedora

  8. Pingback: THE WIDOW OF BATH (1952) by Margot Bennett | Tipping My Fedora

  9. joe807939910 says:

    I took two semesters of Creative Writing with Julian Symons back in 1975-6 at Amherst College, where he was a visiting professor. He was extremely perceptive and very much a gentleman.

  10. Pingback: My Book Notes: Bloody Murder. From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History (1972) by Julian Symons – A Crime is Afoot

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