A THREE PIPE PROBLEM (1975) by Julian Symons

Symons_3pipe_PenguinWhen is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche not a Sherlock Holmes pastiche? Well, when the great detective does not in fact appear … This is the clever conceit of this mystery by poet, critic, novelist and editor Julian Symons, who brings a mild postmodern flourish to his story. Sheridan Haynes is an actor currently playing Holmes on television but the ratings are slipping, his wife is unfaithful and he heartily dislikes the modern age. So, in the style of the master, he sets out to solve the so-called ‘Karate Killings’ in 1970s London …

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“What I have in mind, obviously, is that Sherlock Holmes will solve the mystery of the Karate killings”

This ingenious and thoroughly enjoyable mystery sees Symons at something like his best. As a novelist he will probably be best remembered for his hard-hitting psychological crime stories, such as The Progress of a Crime or The 31st of  February perhaps, and maybe such wry exercises in irony like ‘The Man Who …’ trilogy. But what makes A Three Pipe Problem stand out for me is the way that it manages to combines his fascination with the realities of everyday crime with his enormous affection for the traditional detective story (not incidentally, the book is dedicated to Ngaio Marsh.).

“The day a TV Sherlock beats the Yard I’ll write out my resignation”

Symons_Pipe_penguinThree people have been killed with a blow to the back of the neck, so the press dubs them the ‘Karate killings’ though it is established early on that using the martial art in this way would be risky and ineffective. The three victims are seemingly completely disconnected and Inspector Devenish, a busy, lusty, down-to-earth copper with unusually large thumbs, is baffled. Enter Sheridan Haynes, who is is currently starring as Sherlock Holmes on a TV show that, having reached its fourth season, is on the verge of being cancelled. Changes are being made to the stories to try and claw back viewers (Irene Adler is now a regular foe), which upsets the actor, who is so devoted to Doyle’s original that he has moved into a flat in Baker Street which has been re-modelled to look like the great detective’s own digs. Sher (as his friends call him) isn’t very keen on the modern age and is particularly against motor vehicles, which he considers a noisy and polluting blight on society. His wife Val is much less romantic however, loves to drive fast, and is having an affair with the TV show’s producer. The actress playing Irene Adler is having an affair with notorious gang boss Harry Claber and Sher wonders if maybe he is behind the killings. He decides to find out, to the disgust of Val, his producer and Devenish too, though he does in fact uncover an art fraud. He accomplishes this through the help of his ‘Irregulars’ made up of a trio of a  traffic wardens led by the amiable Joe Johnson, who increasingly functions as Watson to the actor. But when Val leaves Sher, and his fellow actors from the show play a nasty trick on him that gets in the papers and leads to the cancellation of the show, does the actor finally tip over the edge – or is he on to something? A heavy fog descends on London, leading to an elaborate and exciting finish.

“I hate the thing itself, the internal combustion engine. If I could I’d sweep it away. It’s destroying everything I know and love about England.”

The problem with most Sherlockian tributes and pastiches is that the stories are often weak and rely too much of popular and inaccurate conceptions of Sherlockian lore rather than going back to the original sources. Here the plotting is very firm and although there is a clear tongue-in-cheek element, Symons plays fair and doesn’t pretend that his characters don’t know that they are trying to recreate a fictional universe for themselves. Indeed, in this respect this feel like quite a modern text and Symons depicts his characters with utmost realism (very few of them are completely likeable as a result, sometimes exhibiting the casual racism and homophobia that would have been common at the time). Sheridan Haynes would eventually return in a belated adventure, The Kentish Manor Murders, reviewed by that bibliomane extraordinaire John F Norris over at his blog Pretty Sinister Books – it sounds like a thoroughly problematic text and sent me scurrying to look at Haynes’ first case to see if my memories of it were correct and I am glad to say that for the most part I was not disappointed.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘mode of transportation’ category:

018-Vintage-Silver-Symons

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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31 Responses to A THREE PIPE PROBLEM (1975) by Julian Symons

  1. Not many writers could pull off this sort of a pastiche, Sergio, no doubt about that. And it’s interesting to see how Symons makes this tongue-in-cheek without being disrespectful. That takes a lot of skill, in my opinion. And the characters and plot hold their own even without the Holmes connection. Glad you enjoyed this.

  2. tracybham says:

    I want to read some novels by Symons, and I have this book but I wonder if it is the best place to start. Mostly because I have read only a tiny amount of the Sherlock Holmes stories, so I really have no background at all. What do you think?

    • Hi Tracy – well, obviously it is more fun if you pick up the reference to the original works, though these are not obscure as Symons sign posts them clearly (he literally has the actor think that one situation recalls an incident in a particular named story).. This isn’t necessarily typical Symons but its very good and if then it leads you to some of the other books of his I mentioned (plus THE PLOT AGAINST ROGER RIDER, which is really clever), then I think you’d be doing well! Hope you enjoy it!

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    I found this quite good and enjoyable. A very good pastiche.
    Incidentally, the title of the book is taken from the Sherlock Holmes story The Red Headed League.
    I learnt a new word from the book: poof !

    • Thanks for that Santosh, well-worth pointing out where the phrase originated from (I dare say more people are aware of the witty variant from the new TV series, ‘A three patch problem’. On the other hand, that is a new word that is worth knowing but certainly not worth using! But at the time it was very common indeed

  4. realthog says:

    This is the Symons novel I like the best of the three or four I’ve read and, to be honest, I didn’t like it all that much — I did read it twice, though, which must mean something. I’ve always preferred his crime-fiction criticism (in which, lest it be forgotten, he valued Ngaio Marsh very highly, as do I) to his actual crime fiction.

    • Thanks John. he was pretty varied, writing crime stories, plot-heavy whodunits, wry and ironic tales of domestic malice as well as faux historicals and ultra short puzzles for newspapers. However, I might dispute that last bit about Marsh – he is is in fact pretty critical of Marsh in BLOODY MURDER isn’t he?

      • realthog says:

        he is is in fact pretty critical of Marsh in BLOODY MURDER isn’t he?

        I’ve just checked and, er, nope. “Mildly critical” would be a better term. In a first discussion he criticizes the earliest novels of her and Allingham together as having too much tedious interrogation of suspects after the murder; later he’s again mildly critical of Marsh for failing to realize her full potential as a novelist rather than a writer of detective stories. We should all be lucky enough to suffer such criticism.

        The book that I always think of when people talk about a superfluity of interrogation of suspects is by quite a different author: Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, which I was luckless enough to read at the age of ~15.

        • OK chum, have it your own way 🙂 I think you are being a bit generous in your reading though. It seemed to me that, as you say, he praised her gifts for characterisation and humour but was not very enthusiastic about her output as a mystery novelist overall overall and failed to single out any work of hers for special praise. Compared with what he says about Allingham, Innes or Blake, the other bright young things of the 1930s he identified, she clearly comes off third best.

  5. Colin says:

    Never read any of Symons’ fiction either and am most aware of him as a critic. This might be kind of fun though.

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I remember this from way back – time for a re-read maybe! But was Symons the Martin Edwards of his day??😀

  7. TomCat says:

    The title of this book always managed to catch my attention, but then I see who wrote it and I’m immediately repelled by it. I’m afraid your review hasn’t changed that, Sergio.

  8. I’m usually not a big fan of Sherlock Holmes pastiches (so many are dreadful!) but THE THREE-PIPE PROBLEM rises above most of them. Nice review!

  9. Yvette says:

    Never heard of this, Sergio (and in that I can see that I’m in the minority). But since I do love the original Holmes canon and several of the later pastiches, I’ll be adding this one to my Must Read Mountain. 🙂

    P.S. I do like interrogation of witnesses in murder mysteries it it’s well done which, in the books I like to read, it usually is. Maybe I’m in the minority – again?

  10. I am not a big fan of the Symons fiction I have read, but this one sounds worth giving him another chance, I like the setup a lot. I’ll see if I can find it.

  11. I have been meaning to read Julian Symons though I don’t think I’ll start with a pastiche. I had no idea Sherlock Holmes pastiches were as old as forty years, in this case at least. Thanks for the review, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant – well, actually, there were spoofs and pastiches even in Victorian times – there is a massive range of titles going back nearly 120 years – amazing really.

  12. Bev Hankins says:

    This was the novel that introduced me to Symons. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I enjoyed it immensely back when I discovered it.

  13. Pingback: Julian Symons: A Three-Pipe Problem | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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