Julian Symons (1912 – 1994)

thJulian Gustave Symons (originally Gustave Julian Symons) (30 May 1912 – 19 November 1994) was a British crime writer and poet. He also wrote social and military history, biography and studies of literature. He was born in Clapham, London and died in Walmer, Kent.

Julian Symons was born in London to a Russian or Polish-born father (Alphonse Maurice Brann) and an English mother (Minnie) of French and Spanish antecedents. He was a younger brother, and later the biographer, of writer A. J. A. Symons. He left school at 14. He founded the poetry magazine Twentieth Century Verse in 1937, editing it for two years. “He turned to crime writing in a light–hearted way before the war and soon afterwards established himself as a leading exponent of it, though his use of irony to show the violence behind the respectable masks of society place many of his books on the level of the orthodox novel.” As an early Trotskyist, he applied for recognition as an anti-capitalist conscientious objector in World War II, but was refused by his tribunal. He chose not to appeal, and ended up in the Royal Armoured Corps 1942 to 1944, when he was invalided out with a non-battle-related arm injury. After a period as an advertising copywriter, he became a full-time writer in 1947. During his career he won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and, in 1982, received the MWA’s Grand Master Award. Symons served as the president of the Detection Club from 1976 till 1985.

Symons’s 1972 book Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (published as Mortal Consequences in the US) is one of the best-known critical works in the field of crime fiction. Revised editions were published in 1985, 1992 and finally in 1994. Symons highlighted the distinction between the classic puzzler mystery, associated with such writers as Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, and the more modern “crime novel,” which puts emphasis on psychology and motivation.

Symons published over thirty crime novels and story collections between 1945 and 1994. His works combined elements of both the detective story and the crime novel, but leaned clearly toward the latter, with an emphasis on character and psychology which anticipated later crime fiction writers such as Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. His novels tend to focus on ordinary people drawn into a murderous chain of events; the intricate plots are often spiced with black humour. Novels typical of his style include The Colour of Murder (1957), the Edgar-winning The Progress of a Crime (1960), The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968), The Man Who Lost His Wife (1970) and The Plot Against Roger Ryder (1973). (From Wikipedia). He won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, from 1958 he was chairman of the Crime Writers Association and, from 1976 to 1985, succeeded Agatha Christie as president of the Detection Club.

He [Julian Symons] will probably be best remembered as a critic, but in truth his range was astonishing – he was a poet, biographer and social historian, as well as author of some of the best British crime novels of the post-war era. The End of Solomon Grundy, Progress of a Crime, and (a special favourite of mine for its sheer entertainment value)The Man Whose Dreams Came True, were all excellent, and his other novels were never less than interesting. Some of his books focus on social attitudes, but he had read so widely in the genre that his twisty plotting was of a very high quality. The Plot Against Roger Rider is ingenious, and Sweet Adelaide shows his insight into true crime cases. A very late book, Death’s Darkest Face, was among his finest achievements, although sadly, it has never attracted the attention it deserved. Anyone keen on British crime fiction who is unfamiliar with his work has a real treat in store. (Martin Edwards at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’)

Further reading: In Praise of… Julian Symons by Xavier Lerchard

Bibliography: The Immaterial Murder Case (1945); A Man Called Jones (1947); Bland Beginning (1949); The Thirty-First of February (1950); The Broken Penny (1953); The Narrowing Circle (1954); The Paper Chase (1956); The Colour of Murder (1957); The Gigantic Shadow (1958); The Progress of a Crime (1960); Murder! Murder! (1961); The Killing of Francie Lake (1962); The End of Solomon Grundy (1964); The Belting Inheritance (1965); Francis Quarles Investigates (1965); The Man Who Killed Himself (1967); The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968); The Man Who Lost His Wife (1970); The Players and the Game (1972); The Plot Against Roger Rider (1973); A Three Pipe Problem (1975); How to Trap a Crook (1977); The Blackheath Poisonings (1978); Sweet Adelaide (1980); The Great Detectives (1981); The Detling Murders (1982); Tigers in Subtopia (1983); The Name of Annabel Lee (1983); The Criminal Comedy of a Contented Couple (1985); The Kentish Manor Murders (1988); Death’s Darkest Face (1990); Something Like a Love Affair (1992).


(Facsimile Dust Jacket, Collins The Crime Club (UK, (1957)

John Wilkins meets a beautiful, irresistible girl, and his world is turned upside down. Looking at his wife, and thinking of the girl, everything turns red before his eyes – the colour of murder. But did he really commit the heinous crime he was accused of? Told innovatively in two parts: the psychiatric assessment of Wilkins and the trial for suspected murder on the Brighton seafront, Symons’ award-winning mystery tantalizes the reader with glimpses of the elusive truth and makes a daring exploration of the nature of justice itself. (British Library Crime Classics)

The Colour of Murder was one of the most acclaimed British novels of the 1950s. On publication, it received a rapturous reception from the critics, and it won the prize given by the Crime Writers’ Association for the best crime novel of the year n 1957; then called the Crossed Red Herring prize, it is now known as the CWA Gold Dagger.

At that time, the book seemed highly contemporary, with its focus on the psychological make-up of a man accused of murder. Today, more than sixty years later, it is also of interest in the way it documents British social history. The Colour of Murder remains a crisply written and highly readable novel, with a clever plot, even if it is very different from the cerebral whodunits that were in vogue during the Golden Age of Murder between the world wars. (From Martin Edwards Introduction to the recent issue of The Colour of Murder, British Library Crime Classics, 2019)

The Colour of Murder has been reviewed, among others, at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’ Books Please, CrossExaminingCrime, Mysteries Ahoy! Crime Review UK, The Invisible Event, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and Northern Reader.

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