Saturday 25 July 2020
Julian Symons' Bloody Murder
At long last I've caught up with Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder. First published in 1972, it’s an overview of the mystery genre from its origins to the 90s – Symons kept updating it. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, his politics were left-wing, and he was initially a conscientious objector in World War Two. After leaving the army, he wrote poetry, reviewed mysteries and worked in advertising. He “turned away with a shudder from the many Holmes parodies”, but wrote two of them. His heyday as a mystery writer was postwar.
All this may explain his somewhat sweeping judgements of mysteries written in the interwar period – the Golden Age. Whenever there’s an Agatha Christie anniversary, or a new “adaptation” (read “travesty”) of one of her works, journalists will be deputed to produce a page of background. Never having read any Golden Age mysteries, they turn to this book, and Symons’ chapters on the 20s and 30s. I’ll highlight the tropes.
He sees the agreed rules for the genre as an authoritarian straitjacket. The perpetrator “must not be a servant because this was a ‘too easy solution’, and ‘the culprit must be a decidedly worthwhile person’... Nor could the murderer be a professional criminal... The motives for all crimes should be personal, and within that context rational.” (Quotes from Philo Vance creator Willard Huntington Wright, aka S.S. Van Dine.) Murders “should not be committed for reasons of state or on behalf of theoretical principles or by somebody merely insane.” See Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost, Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles and other stories which end with the removal of “the screaming, raving thing that had been X”. In one of them we even get the "theoretical principles" as well.
Symons concludes that “in very few of these stories are the characters seen as anything other than puppets in a game”. In Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, Harriet Vane finds her fictional lovers stubbornly refuse to come alive. “Give them real emotions,” suggests Sayers' detective Lord Peter Wimsey. Vane does, and finds that this throws the whole story out of whack. “Start again,” Wimsey advises, helpfully. Sayers herself put chunks of her own experience and opinions into her books, as did Christie.
These stories take place in a political vacuum, writes Symons. “The fairytale land of the Golden Age was one in which murder was committed over and over again without anybody getting hurt.” Communists are guyed in Nursing Home, and used as a plot device in Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, and the perpetrator rationalises: “But my country needs me”. Both Christie and Margery Allingham hint at the harm galloping inflation could do, and Allingham features a would-be Mosley.
Symons continues: "It is safe to say that almost all the British writers of the 20s and 30s... were unquestionably right-wing. This is not to say that they were openly anti-Semitic or anti-Radical, but that they were overwhelmingly conservative in feeling. It would have been unthinkable for them to create a Jewish detective, or a working-class one...” Inspector Fox in Ngaio Marsh’s work is sometimes nauseatingly humble about his working-class origins. And what Symons thinks writers would have thought is not evidence.
“The social order in these stories was as fixed and mechanical as that of the Incas... It seems surprising that the intelligent men and women who devised the rules did not see that they were limiting the scope and interest of their work... to abjure voluntarily the interplay of character and the force of passion was eventually to reduce this kind of detective story to the level of a crossword puzzle.” We know so much better now, you see.
He rates Christie and Sayers, but points out that the latter’s books contain “an enormous amount of padding... her English yokels are particularly to be deplored". He doesn’t like her “facetious professional men” either. At times Wimsey’s “self-conscious humour” is “excruciating”. (G.K. Chesterton’s Gabriel Syme was better at absurdity.) Sayers is accused of “casual anti-Semitism”, an unpleasant trait that can’t be denied, though Olga Kohn, the character he quotes, turns out to be intelligent and appealing. In fact the low-life characters are the best bits of Have His Carcase.
He moves on to the 30s and Gladys Mitchell, whose books are “full of travelogue details”. “Many tediously fanciful aspects of English life, Morris dancing, witchcraft, amateur archaeology, get lengthy examination in the Mitchell oeuvre.” As teenagers, mysteries were almost our only source of information about witchcraft – we were keen to find recipes that might work, though there was always the risk that the Devil could take your soul.
“Most of the new writers... had at least implicit right-wing sympathies. Their policemen were all good, their Radicals bad or silly, they took the existing social order for granted.” Michael Innes “gave his books a very thick coating of urbane literary conversation”. That’s why I can’t read them.
In this period “Christie got rid of Poirot’s Idiot Friend, Captain Hastings, and modified the little Belgian a great deal because she felt him to be increasingly absurd.” A fair summary. Sayers gave up detection in the 40s, and refused to write an introduction to an omnibus, “saying that she had written the books only to make money and had no further interest in them”. And that is something that we, and 21st century journalists, should remember. Authors had to consider their readers and produce what sold.
Symons recommends Christie's Mrs McGinty’s Dead and The Pale Horse (so do I), with the caveat: “She was not a good writer, but she was a supreme mistress in the construction of puzzles and had a skill in writing light, lively and readable dialogue that has been consistently underrated by critics. There was also a darker side to her imagination, something that has been little recognised.” So Sayers is damned for being too literary, and Christie dismissed as not literary enough, though he can see her good points.
“In constructing the detective story as a perfect mechanism, the Golden Age writers sacrificed almost everything else. Their work pandered to the taste of readers who wanted every character de-gutted so that there should be nothing even faintly disturbing about the fate of victims or murderers.”
He can’t even keep the English GAD writers out of a discussion of Raymond Chandler: “For the Golden Age writer the plot is everything and the writing might often be done by computer... the limitations of the Golden Age’s arbitrary conventions”. The rules were surely a reaction to the thrillers of the early 20th century, and they were not entirely serious. He opines that “The Poirot and Miss Marple short stories are far inferior to the novels”. So wrong.
His overview of postwar detective fiction is more readable – the prose style throughout is excellent and often witty. Since I know far less about this period, I’m happy to be educated – and to be reminded of Colin Watson’s Miss Teatime, played on TV by Brenda Bruce. He praises Joan Aiken’s The Trouble with Product X – one of her earlier books that were set in worlds very like this one but with minor, significant differences.
The most clearly realised of Edgar Wallace’s detectives is “the absent-minded spinsterish Mr J.G. Reeder”, and the Reeder collection (1925) is “probably the best”. The stories were made into a wonderful TV series in the 60s, with Hugh Burden, Willoughby Goddard and a succession of secretaries that included Damaris Hayman. (Wallace is discussed here because he wrote thrillers rather than mysteries.)
Dennis Wheatley is dismissed for using language like “having partaken of Sir Pellinore’s Lucullan hospitality”. I was delighted to find that modernist composer George Antheil had written two crime stories under the name of Stacey Bishop. Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique is written for “16 pianos, some buzzers, an airplane propeller and an electric drill”. I wonder if he inspired Christie’s straight novel Giant’s Bread?
Arnold Bennett’s potboilers are condemned for their “tone of uneasy facetiousness” and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories dismissed as “absolute rubbish”. I can now add Sudden Death: Or My Lady the Wolf (1886), by Britiffe, fourth Baron Scottowe, to my short list of detective novels involving female-to-male cross-dressing.
He notes that in Graham Greene “the villain is seen as a kind of pathetic hero”. “John Le Carré’s later progress has been for the most part dismaying.” Many would agree, but the development he deplores is Le Carré’s move from mysteries to spy novels, and George Smiley’s transformation from a “faceless organisation man” to a hero. Symons finds Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy “long, complicated, funereally slow”.
Dornford Yates is “unreadable” in his view – not surprising, as Yates’ books combine ostentatious “fine writing” with casual violence and repellent racism. Victorian journalists were better at this kind of style, full of “elegant variation” and classical allusions. Symons warms to Dick Francis and appreciates his thorough research, though finds he has been “overpraised”.
In one of his many later appendices, he rehashes his opinion of the Golden Age. Women novelists’ “work emphasised the importance of preserving the existing state of society. (The invention of the ‘rules’ could be related to this overriding social need.)” Society was threatened in the 30s – by the Depression and by dictatorships – but the connection between these perils and the necessity to keep identical twins, supernatural intervention and Chinamen out of mystery stories is tenuous.
In his last footnote, he refers to the “fairytale crime world of Agatha Christie”. Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs is full of “blindingly dull stuff about moths” and “treasure-hunt clues”.
Finally, “though the form seems endlessly flexible there is a point at which the elastic snaps” and “most parodies are dismally unfunny”. He has no time for stories by Paul Auster and Jorge-Luis Borges which borrow the 30s American crime novel’s atmospheric set-ups and then offer no plot. All these authors show “condescension” to the genre, and are “self-congratulatory”, “clever” and “sterile”.
The cliché about Julian Symons is “Who remembers his mysteries now?”, but on this showing I’m tempted to read them. He ends with Berthold Brecht’s words “O Moon of Alabama, We now must say goodbye”, and promises to “make no more additions to Bloody Murder". I enjoyed the days in the company of Mr Symons, and must now catch up on Colin Watson’s Snobbery with Violence.
Journalists – next time you have to write a page about an author whose books you’ve never read, who has been given a modern treatment by an adapter who’s never read her either, just lift the quotes above!
More here, and links to other mysteries.