Martin Edwards' Lake District Mysteries include The Coffin Trail (short-listed for the Theakston's prize for best British crime novel of 2006), The Cipher Garden and The Arsenic Labyrinth (short-listed for the Lakeland Book of the Year award in 2008). Martin has written eight novels about lawyer Harry Devlin, the first of which, All the Lonely People, was short-listed for the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger for the best first crime novel of the year. He runs a crime writing blog. Below Martin writes about Julian Symons' Bloody Murder.
Martin Edwards on Bloody Murder by Julian Symons
The only fan letter I ever wrote was to Julian Symons. He was a poet, a novelist, a historian, a critic and probably several other things besides. Truly an all-rounder, certainly a prolific and gifted writer. I've admired his work since my mid-teens, but the book of his to which I constantly return is Bloody Murder. Its subtitle is self-explanatory: 'From the detective story to the crime novel: a history'. I first read it a year or two after its initial publication in 1972. Already by then I was fascinated by crime fiction, and determined that one day I would write it myself. What Symons did was to open my eyes much more widely to the richness of the genre. And, more than that, through his keen and discerning critical insight, he taught me that even with commercial fiction, it is possible - in fact, most important - to set one's sights high.
Symons was widely read in the genre, and his own crime novels displayed a rich talent for characterization, as well as a playful ability to indulge in feats of ingenuity that Christie or Sayers might have admired. He loved the genre, but he could also be acerbic about his fellow writers' efforts, and he set out his credo in the first chapter of Bloody Murder:
The assumption made here is that if we are to say what is good in crime fiction we should say also what is less good, commonplace, or poor; that the best crime stories are novels of quality; and that clever ideas and tricks are positive virtues, although they may be cancelled by writing that is crude or slovenly.It's a bold proposition, and one that earned Symons, and continues to earn him, a fair amount of opprobrium. So the story goes, John Creasey, dissatisfied with a carping review from Symons, wanted to have him drummed out of the Crime Writers' Association. To this day, fans of Golden Age writers such as John Rhode and Freeman Wills Crofts, are infuriated that Symons dismissed their heroes as 'humdrum'. Even when the third and final edition of Bloody Murder came out in 1992, two years before Symons died of cancer, he was still taking pot-shots at writers whom some revere, notably Derek Raymond.
But Symons remained clear-eyed to the end. In introducing that third edition, he said:
This is the work of an addict, not an academic, and is a record of enthusiasm and occasional disappointment, not a catalogue or an encyclopaedia. It is meant for reading, consultation, argument, reasoned contradiction...I learned a good deal from reading, and re-reading the book. I had never heard of the likes of C. Daly King and Cameron McCabe, authors, respectively, of two weird and wonderful books, Obelists Fly High, and The Face on the Cutting Room Floor; nor was I familiar with such names as Patrick Quentin, Margot Bennett and Shelley Smith. But more than introducing me to entertaining mysteries, Symons made me think, long and hard, about the genre. I didn't agree with everything he wrote - for instance, he underestimates the significance of Henry Wade, in my opinion - and he failed to mention a number of books that seem to me to be dazzling. The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers, is but one example. But the virtues of his study far outweigh any defects.
Cheekily, I decided that he'd overlooked the historic significance of a book by C.S. Forester, Payment Deferred, which foreshadowed Francis Iles' Malice Aforethought, to which Symons gave (quite rightly, for it is a terrific book) great prominence. So when I wrote that fan letter to him, rather more than 30 years ago, I ventured to point this out. He responded to this 'reasoned contradiction' with a very generous and interesting letter in which he accepted the argument I'd advanced and referred me to a booklet in which he had highlighted Forester's work long before writing Bloody Murder.
After my first crime novel was published in 1991, I met Symons and his wife a couple of times through the Crime Writers' Association (thankfully, he still hadn't been drummed out). It was a joy to talk to the great man. I suspect he knew by then that he was dying, but I found him full of charm, and as sharp-witted as ever. I think that quite a few sensitive souls may have had their egos bruised by Julian Symons over the years. He was capable of acidity in his judgments. But, to my mind, the vast majority of those judgments were sound. He was a man of distinction, and Bloody Murder is a book of distinction.