Barriers of Silliness

J.I.M. Stewart

  • The Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations by Julian Symons
    Orbis, 143 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 85613 362 0
  • Critical Observations by Julian Symons
    Faber, 213 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 571 11688 4
  • As I walked down New Grub Street: Memories of a Writing Life by Walter Allen
    Heinemann, 276 pp, £8.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 434 01829 5

The first of Julian Symons’s ‘original investigations’, entitled ‘How a hermit was disturbed in his retirement’, is an apocryphal Sherlock Holmes story in which the great detective is lured away from his bee-keeping activities (Holmes has ‘developed a cage of a new type that can be slipped between two combs in the brood chamber’) by a distressed young woman posing, rather pointlessly, as a local journalist. This fails to deceive Holmes for a moment – for has she not sent him a handwritten letter from a private address? – and the real occasion of her visit turns out to be anxiety over her recently-acquired fiancé, who has unaccountably disappeared for some weeks and so may well be dead. It takes Holmes a couple of days to show that he is still alive and not at all likely to prove an agreeable husband. This is decidedly no three-pipe problem. Mr Symons’s plot is of a modest near-transparency from the start – a fact cunningly enhancing an authentic Conan Doyle effect in a story exhibiting throughout a striking and amusing command of pastiche.

The second investigation is called ‘About Miss Marple and St Mary Mead’ and is exactly that: we hear everything about this female sleuth and her village that can be derived from a careful sifting through the fairly numerous books that Agatha Christie wrote about her. The remaining pieces are all to some extent the same sort of thing, relying for the most part on the mild entertainment to be derived from treating detective stories as historical documents through a close study of which reliable short biographies of their protagonists may be built up. In this scholarly activity numerous difficulties, needless to say, confront the biographer. Mr H. R. F. Keating has been driven to the conclusion that Hercule Poirot was aged 130 (or a little more) at the time of his death as recorded in Curtain. This is a perplexing improbability which Mr Symons (with the advantage of working from Captain Arthur Hastings’s notes on the life of his eminent friend) examines in considerable depth. Again, a little less than half-way through his career, Ellery Queen exhibits a species of personality-change so drastic that investigation is wholly baffled until we arrive at the happy discovery that there were two Ellery Queens – the second of whom was not indeed Ellery but Dan. Ellery went to Harvard and Dan to Amherst (familiar to Mr Symons since he was a visiting professor there). It appears that both had a distinct flair for crime.

This formula – in danger of becoming tedious when much concerned with the great detectives’ sexual inclinations, taste in indoor furnishing, favourite cuisine and the like – is resourcefully varied and relieved by Mr Symons through all sorts of Pirandello-like dodges. In Los Angeles he interviews an elderly private eye who may or may not be the original of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and who recounts an ostensibly real-life gangster episode which brought Chandler and the archetypal Marlowe together. Similarly the investigation of the Ellery Queen biographical tangle leads into a little ‘sealed room’ problem fortified by some authentic Amherst local colour. Maigret has a brief encounter with a cocky little Belgian police detective of whose identity we can be in no doubt. But was the girl who made her appeal to Holmes Miss Marple in youth? This mystery remains unsolved.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in