Title: Mortal Consequences
Author: Julian Symons
Symons, Julian (1972). Mortal Consequences: A History From The Detective Story to The Crime Novel. New York: Harper & Row
Date Posted: November 15, 2016
Julian Symons is a longstanding British critic of the genre in which he is also a practitioner (he finds most other reviewers too permissive) and this is a survey of the detective story which has become the crime novel—the closest to categorizing (a foolish enterprise) that he attempts. Nor does he advance his own personal predilections as did Barzun & Taylor in their more stylishly written Catalogue of Crime (1971). Symons goes back to some of the earliest beginnings (Godwin, Vidocq, Collins, Dostoevsky, Holmes, et al.) in the early sections; follows the rise and fall and rise again of the short story; witnesses the weakening of the detective story as it parallels our slackening sense of sin and makes the point throughout that this kind of entertainment—the best of which has been written by “artists not artisans”—“reflects and is reenforced by whatever social structure prevails.” Thus the former success of Dorothy Sayers however “longwinded and ludicrously snobbish.” Whom does he admire? Stanley Ellin in the shorter form with Sherlock Holmes and Chesterton; Simenon (a whole chapter); Hammett and Chandler; Patricia Highsmith (more appreciated over there). He agrees with Chandler that “To accept a mediocre form and make something like literature out of it is in itself rather an accomplishment” and that too rarely does that form achieve something which is not strictly temporal. From the past, he makes a few very tentative extrapolations about the future but perhaps does not fully explain where have all the flowers gone (into science fiction rather than the “adventure” novel?) All in all, sweet quiet reason prevails.