Friday, 24 July 2009

Forgotten Book - The 31st of February

The advertising business has given rise to a number of very good mysteries. One thinks of that absolute classic, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. And it’s true that a surprising number of novelists have honed their writing talents, like Sayers, on the drafting of advertising copy.

Julian Symons had a spell himself as a copywriter and he used his experience to good effect in my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books, The 31st of February. This book was first published in 1950 and it illustrates the break between the generation of crime novelists who started work after the Second World War and their predecessors.

Symons was an extremely skilled plotter, but he was much more interested in the psychology of crime than many of his predecessors. Ingenuity is put to the service of delineation of character, and the creation of a brooding atmosphere. In this novel, an advertising man called Anderson is responsible for his wife’s death and is pursued ruthlessly by the rather sadistic Inspector Cresse.

Symons explores issues of guilt and innocence, while at the same time creating a mood of tension that spills over into terror. Anderson finds himself in a world of paradox and uncertainty reflected in the notion of a date that doesn’t exist – the 31st of February. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed almost all of Symons’ novels, and although inevitably a little dated, this one is still well worth reading.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This sounds like one I'd enjoy. I'm to post on Patti's site soon, too. I love finding forgotten gems there.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Martin Edwards said...

I can strongly recommend Symons, Elizabeth.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Loved everything he wrote. Please join us soon, ESC, we need more women.

vegetableduck said...

I find it odd to think of Symons as a "forgotten" novelist. I guess everyone interested in the genre knows Bloody Murder, but his novels seem to be fading from memory. However, House of Stratus reprinted his books in 2000, I believe, and Poison Pen reprinted The Blackheath Poisonings, I think.

Even as a lot of the Golden Agers faded, Christie still more than hung on, as well as Marsh and, for part of the same period, Allingham. And they're still in print today, after others who were big up and comers in the fifties, like Symons, Michael Gilbert and Andrew Garve, have faded.

Seems like it really took PD James and Ruth Rendell attaining such popularity in the seventies for British mystery to fully liberate itself from Christie and the Golden Age (at first they were marketed too as "new Agatha Christies). Though now James especially is starting to be seen as too "traditionalist."

I still tend to think of someone like Robert Barnard as "new," which shows you how backward-looking I am! Barnard's been writing mystery fiction for over thirty years and is 73 now, I believe. Same with Peter Lovesey. But these guys were to me the new, younger, relatively traditional British people when I was looking around for other authors in the 1980s.

I suppose Symons' best period, roughly 1950-1970 now practically seems as dated as the Golden Age (1920-1940)!

Martin Edwards said...

I think Symons was never a best-seller, Curt, and he never had a major series detective, two factors that perhaps militate against longevity. Some of his late books are excellent, eg Death's Darkest Face.

vegetableduck said...

Cyril Hare and Edmund Crispin were never bestsellers either, but they've been in and out of print since their deaths. Symons is an important figure in the genre, both as critic and novelist. It's interesting that his books are mostly out of print, here fifteen years after his death. The same thing had happened to Colin Watson, but wasn't it recently announced he's being reprinted? Maybe someone will do Symons. My choices:

1. 31st of February
2. Narrowing Circle
3. Colour of Myrder
4. Progress of a Crime
5. End of Solomon Grundy
6. Players and the Game
7. Blackheath Poisonings (in print, I think)
8. Detling Secret
9. Death's Darkest Face

Hmm, to make ten I would add The Man Who Killed Himself.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Curt, your favourites are similar to mine, but I would have The Man Whose Dreams Came True rather than The Colour of Murder, and the Roger Rider and Annabel Lee books, especially the former, are also faves of mine.

vegetableduck said...

The Man Who Dream Came True is so depressing (not that the others are exactly cheerful)! Also, that's one I really would be tempted to put in the "straight novel with crime" category, as opposed to that of crime novel. What do you think? Do you buy such distinctions?

I don't think Symons thought too much of The Detling Secret, but it was my favorite of his lighter books, and I thought the puzzle quite neat.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, I read Dreams as a teenager and was greatly impressed. I do buy the distinction, but I think Dreams is a crime novel. Detling is a good book, though I tend to prefer The Blackheath Poisonings and possibly Sweet Adelaide, now I come to think about it.