Tecs messaging

THE CASE OF THE MISSING MEN (Christopher Bush, 1946)


Ludovic Travers investigates strangling of egomaniac detective writer.  It’s blindingly obvious from very early on that a) Preston is obviously Chaice in disguise; b) that Bush is going to serve it up as a big surprise in the last chapter (I was wrong, it’s the second last); and c) who the murderer is.

Ralph Partridge (New Statesman, 27 April 1946) wrote: “Spotting the villain becomes all too easy in The Case of the Missing Men, which never deviates from the most elementary methods of mystification.  Ludovic Travers is a beginner’s detective, always several moves behind the reader in his deductions.  Waiting for him to catch up is as tedious as going for a walk with a six-year-old child.”

There’s also supposed to be a sketch map – which didn’t get into the reprint.

For a more enthusiastic review, see TomCat’s page.

FATAL RELATIONS (Margaret Erskine, 1955)


Good ‘un, this.  No great tricks, but you’ll enjoy this village murder mystery, which has lots of murders, and plenty of atmosphere.  Suspects include an amnesiac (or is he?), a military man who massacred an African tribe for kicks, a vicar with OCD, and an adulteress.  The opening chapter at a funeral is excellent.


One of those conventional detective stories the English produced in great numbers.  Lively young civil servants (not an oxymoron, apparently) buy a flat, with a corpse on the roof.  Inspector MacDonald turns up and asks lots of questions, mainly about keys and windows.  Entire chapters in Cockney.  I lost interest halfway through.

THE PAPER CHASE (Julian Symons, 1956)


A young detective writer takes a job as a teacher at a progressive school, and finds himself in an imbroglio of spies, Nazis, gangsters, and corrupt politicians (compulsive anal sadists).  The detective writer’s first book is Where Dons Delight, a story of University life complete with a pornographic library, a don who thinks he’s a vampire bat, and mind-altering drugs.  Symons’ plot isn’t much tamer.  He’s apparently writing an homage to Michael Innes.  “A pleasing fancy, Applegate thought, but no doubt inaccurate.”

Moriarty (Anthony Horowitz)

How do you prefer your forces of evil type Moriarty?

A diabolical mastermind, a Napoleon of crime ruling over an empire of iniquity, like a spider in the middle of its web?

Or as a washed-up hood with only three henchmen, running a cheap knocking-off shop?

Personally, I prefer Moriarty as a heavily oiled French wreck; fruit bottler extraordinary to the House of Pronk; champion barbed-wire hurdler (until his tragic accident); and male lead in over 50 postcards.

The Daily Mail called it “the finest crime novel of the year”.  It ain’t.  We’re a long way from Holmes.

It starts off well enough, with Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase and Inspector Athelney Jones at Reichenbach.  (He’s fallen in the water!)  It turns into a violent, joyless, increasingly tedious potboiler.

Zero wit or invention; lots of people shot in the head or stomach, throat-cutting, with blood spurting all over the place like a Tarantino film.  

The “stunning twist” is one of two I expected from the start.  (The other – wrong one – was that Athelney Jones would be Holmes in disguise.)  You’ve seen it before, done better.

Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?

Second-hand bookshops are some of the most dangerous places in the world.

It’s impossible for me to enter one and not spend a couple of hundred dollars.  (This is Australian money; think of it as about 15 pounds sterling.)

The one where I’m living this year is closing, and everything is going at half price.  I walked out with (deep breath):

[Crime fiction]

  1. The House of Doctor Dee (Peter Ackroyd)
  2. What Dread Hand? (Christianna Brand)
  3. Gentlemen of the Road (Michael Chabon)
  4. The Salterton Trilogy (Robertson Davies)
  5. The Cornish Trilogy (“”)
  6. The Cunning Man (“”)
  7. High Spirits (“”)
  8. The Rose of Tibet (Lionel Davidson)
  9. Smith’s Gazelle (“”)
  10. The Green Gene (Peter Dickinson)
  11. Seven Gothic Tales (Isak Dinesen = Karen Blixen)
  12. Seven Days in New Crete (Robert Graves)
  13. The Little World of Don Camillo (Giovanni Guareschi)
  14. The Good Soldier Svejk (Jaroslav Hašek)
  15. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (James Hogg)
  16. Who’s Afraid of Beowulf (Tom Holt)
  17. My Hero (“”)
  18. Ye Gods! (“”)
  19. Top Bloody Secret (Stanley Hyland)
  20. Message from Sirius (Cecil Jenkins)
  21. A Calabash of Diamonds (Margaret Lane)
  22. Marius the Epicurean (Walter Pater)
  23. The Praise Singer (Mary Renault)
  24. The Nature of Alexander (“”)
  25. Nightmares of Eminent Persons (Bertrand Russell)
  26. Knight After Knight (Sheila Sancha)
  27. The Search (C.P. Snow)
  28. The Masters (“”)
  29. Boomerang (Helen Simpson)
  30. Pleasures of Music (ed. Jacques Barzun)
  31. How to Enjoy Opera Without Really Trying (John Cargher)
  32. The Opera (Robert Donington)
  33. A Season of Opera: From Orpheus to Ariadne (M. Owen Lee)
  34. Opera Nights (Ernest Newman)
  35. and the scripts to Elizabeth R


In recent weeks, I have also bought:

  1. Take Two at Bedtime (Margery Allingham)
  2. Palace Without Chairs (Brigid Brophy)
  3. Pomp and Circumstance (Noel Coward)
  4. Fatal Relations (Margaret Erskine)
  5. Valmouth & Other Stories (Ronald Firbank)
  6. Third Crime Lucky (Anthony Gilbert)
  7. Tenant for the Tomb (“”)
  8. Cage Me a Peacock ( (Noel Langley)
  9. There’s a Porpoise Close Behind Us (“”)
  10. The Rift in the Lute (“”)
  11. Case in the Clinic (E.C.R. Lorac)
  12. The Sixteenth Staircase (“”)
  13. Dangerous Domicile (“”)
  14. Death of a Lady Killer (“”, as Carol Carnac)
  15. The Colour of Blood (Brian Moore)
  16. I Am Mary Dunne (“”)
  17. The Great Victorian Collection (“”)
  18. The Reproductive System (John Sladek)
  19. Immortal Coil (Peter Van Greenaway)
  20. The Haunted Monastery and The Chinese Maze Murders (Robert Van Gulik)
  21. and a lot of Leslie Charteris and Ruth Rendell

And that’s not counting what’s on my Kindle!

No Tears for Hilda (Andrew Garve)

By Andrew Garve

First published: UK, Collins, 1950

3 stars

I’m not sure why this book enjoys such a positive reputation.

Arcturus Publishing reprinted it as a “Crime Classic”, while Barzun and Taylor praised it:

The first book by this author that we read, though not his first.  Yet there is about Hilda a freshness suggestive of a new voice.  It is, moreover, a solid work, which can be reread at intervals with the greatest pleasure.  The detection is adroitly divided, or doubled (as one may want to look at it), so that the business of being on both sides of the hunt does not provide the usual disintegration of suspense.  The hero and heroine are likeable, and so is the murderer.  Garve writes with economy and colour – another rare combination.

Barzun and Taylor’s judgements are notoriously eccentric; they lauded the Humdrums to the skies, and didn’t like John Dickson Carr – or imagination in detective fiction.

This is drab.  Hilda Lambert, odious, middle-class, and Methodist, is gassed in an oven; the police arrest her husband.  His (ex-WWII) friend Max Easterbrook sets about clearing him.  His detection consists of talking to relations, and finding out what sort of woman she was.

As a mystery, it’s a complete flop.  The murderer first appears in Chapter 10 (65% through the book), and Max suspects him at once.  Chapter 12 opens with the murderer reflecting on his crime.

Read something else.

The Secret of Chemnitz: Towards a Fascist detective story

The American critic Anthony Boucher maintained that the detective story was a quintessentially liberal genre, and could not be written in a totalitarian state.

In this, he was mistaken.

Last year, as some of you may know, I travelled to Europe for the first performance in more than a century of Halévy’s magnificent opera La reine de Chypre.

Anyone who collects 19th century scores and musical criticism makes contacts with antiquarian booksellers.

I had purchased Clément’s Musiciens célèbres (Hachette, 1868) from Gueymard of Lyon. Knowing of my interest in detective fiction, he showed me a curious volume that had come into his possession from a deceased estate.

The spine read One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, by Agatha Christie.  So did the cover page.  But it wasn’t quite the book I remembered.

I’d completely forgotten that Poirot faces a cabal of international Jewish bankers secretly controlling the world.  Or the part where he chums up with a young Blackshirt.  Or his proclamation that only a single strong man can protect society from the international Jewish Bolshevist conspiracy.

“I have seen the truth, mon ami – and the truth is Adolf Hitler!”

Was it a hoax?

Far from it.

The Nazis had, as everyone knows, prepared for war for years, building up their military forces.

Goebbels, with his evil genius for propaganda, had also prepared to wage a war of the mind.

He would demoralize the English by insinuating corrupted versions of texts into libraries and bookshops.

The detective story was the ideal vehicle for a propaganda and demoralization campaign: a genre whose very purpose was the hermeneutics of suspicion, and which inculcated in its readers a permanent low level of paranoia.

Trust nobody, detective fans soon learnt. Policemen, army officers, postmen, sweet old ladies, nice young things, respectable matrons, servants, clergymen, doctors, dentists, children, even the detective could be the murderer – or, in these volumes, secret Nazi agents.

German intelligence is everywhere, and you are not safe, even in your home.  How do you know your husband or your daughter isn’t in the pay of the Führer? Or your spiritual pastor? How do you know your postman isn’t reading your letters? How do you know your doctor isn’t infecting you with fatal germs?

The detective story was also, conveniently, the favourite reading matter of the English-reading world.

Under Goebbels’ supervision, teams of writers in Berlin prepared revised editions, which Fifth Columnists smuggled into the country.

Sir Henry Merrivale gloomily ended The Reader is Warned foretelling Nazi occupation of Britain, with London as a cloud of poison-gas from Hampstead to Lambeth, and a cowed populace speaking Esperanto in Billingsgate.

Others claimed that the Nazis were fighting a battle for Western civilization.  Thus, Sherlock Holmes defeated The Four of Zion.  As for Q. Patrick’s S.S. Murder, Herbert Adams’ Old Jew Mystery, and Rupert Penny’s She Had To Have Gas

Much of the Nazi effort went into Agatha Christie, the best-selling queen of crime.

In the corrupt versions, one Haken Gob’neau replaced Christie’s moustachioed little Belgian.

Gob’neau was a small, moustached man who looked like a third-class waiter in a provincial railway-station restaurant – but was really one of the greatest men in Europe.

He used the little grey cells (in Prinz-Albrecht-Straße) to solve his cases, and was accompanied by the loyal SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Gottstrafe England (who went off to Argentina after WWII).

Gob’neau would, at the end of each case, assemble the suspects in the drawing-room, and reveal the murderer.  He would also expose – and often shoot – various hidden enemies of Europe, such as Jews, liberals, homosexuals, modern artists, and other degenerates.

The list of revised titles began with The Mysterious Affair at Weill’s, an exposé of the decadence of Berlin nightlife, and continued with The Secret Adversary (about a left-wing plot to overthrow the government), The Murder on the Rechts (right wing is right thinking!), The Secret of Chemnitz, and Sad Cyprus (and Sadder Crete).

Then there were the nursery rhyme murders: Solomon Grundy Died on a Monday, or Never Play with the Gypsies in the Wood.

Even after the war, as late as the ’60s and early ’70s, ardent Nazis continued to produce infected versions: Blood Will TellAnschluss Night, or Endless Kristallnacht, for instance.

In “The Capture of Cerberus”, published in The Labours of Hercules (1947), Gob’neau restores the missing dictator August Hertzlein to power.

In “The Call of Wings”, after a disastrous encounter with Paul McCartney (symbol of degenerate pop culture), the protagonist has an epiphany at a performance of Wagner’s Rienzi.

This was the opera where the idea for National Socialism came to Hitler, during a performance in Linz, 1906 (“In jener Stunde begann es”).  The overture was the theme for Nazi Party rallies.  And when Hitler committed suicide in the Berlin bunker, the score (presented to him by Winifred Wagner) was in his possession.

It is easy to see why Hitler loved it.  The story of a charismatic demagogue’s rise to power, and his mystic unity with the people.  The Nuremberg aesthetic: excessive visual display, communal expressions of nationalistic fervour, the worship of force, military processions, marches and heroic oaths…

It sounds rather like this:

(Listen to 3hrs 8’00; the Horst Wessel Lied isn’t far removed.)

Passenger to Frankfurt ends with Hitler and his son returning from South America to quell the counterculture movement, restore order, and rule over a Thousand Year Reich, controlling the population with nerve gas.

Siegfried, the blond, blue-eyed, heroic mass murderer of the Ring, appears as leader of the Hitler Youth. The hero quotes Hans Sachs’ monologue “Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!” from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master Singers of Nuremberg), and his speech at the opera’s end about the supremacy of German culture.

Wagner’s only mature comedy is a warm-hearted five-hour musical in which a Jewish caricature is beaten up by the entire town, publicly humiliated, and then driven out of the community.  As Goebbels said to Himmler at the Nuremberg Rallies: Lawks, what laughs.

In Postern of Fate, German agents Bruno and Bibi infiltrate an English village to discover who murdered the Kaiser’s agents during the First World War.

The work is full of references to Wagner’s Lohengrin, in which a knight is sent by a mystical power to rule over the Volk as their Protector.  Asking questions about who he is, where he came from, and how he came to power is strictly verboten.  Trust him blindly, Wagner orders.  The first act ends with the chorus enthusiastically singing “Sieg! Sieg! Sieg! Heil!”.

These corrupted versions are scarce; British Intelligence impounded many as dangerous forgeries.

Dr. Botulus Wixener, of Munich, claims, however, that “Agatha Christie” is the forgery; the genuine writer (his argument runs) was one Grimgerde Ludwig, a pure Aryan, fanatically devoted to National Socialism.

In a twist straight out of one of her (their?) plots, Ludwig replaced Christie at the time of her famous “disappearance” in 1926.  Amnesia and a nervous breakdown were convenient excuses for any oddities of behaviour.

Ludwig served as one of Germany’s most dangerous spies in England.  She used her novels to pass on secret information to Berlin through her mysteries (or enigmas, or enemas) – notably about Bletchley Park in Norm, where heroic English Fifth Columnists Bruno and Bibi thwart two of Churchill’s most trusted agents.

On her trips to the Middle East with archaeologist husband Max Mallowan, she hobnobbed with high-ranking Nazis and discussed the Jews.

All the “standard” versions of Christie, Dr. Wixener claims, were really produced by British counter-intelligence.  They are the forgeries.

The Frankfurt school argue that Agatha Christie never existed at all, and that all her books, and all references to them, were created by a group of historians, writers, and philosophers in the 1960s, to see whether a fictional construct could be imposed upon reality.

They successfully convinced many educated people that Sherlock Holmes – a genuine London detective of the 1880s – was fictional, and that the imaginary Winston Churchill and Richard the Lionheart (made up by Shakespeare) were real historical figures.

History, as Anatoly Fomenko argued, is bunk.

The politics of detective fiction

For JJ, who wondered what Henry Wade’s politics were.

From left to right:


  • C. St. John Sprigg


  • Julian Symons


  • Nicholas Blake
  • G.D.H. and M. Cole


  • Leslie Charteris (half-Chinese; in The Saint Plays with Fire, he argues the Establishment – business, Conservative politics, and the army – is Fascist)
  • E.R. Punshon (Dickensian liberal, attacked Nazis from 1933/34 on, published by Gollancz)
  • Ellery Queen (Halfway House!)


  • H.C. Bailey (with religious zeal)
  • Anthony Boucher (wrote article on why the detective story was liberal)
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Anthony Gilbert
  • Reginald Hill
  • E.C.R. Lorac (anti-Mosley)
  • Ngaio Marsh (if clumsily, earnestly so)
  • Helen McCloy
  • Gladys Mitchell
  • John Rhode (until after WWII)
  • Rex Stout
  • Edgar Wallace

“Tory” liberal

  • John Dickson Carr (hated the welfare state and Socialists because he thought they were against individual rights; refused to visit Buckingham Palace because his gay friends weren’t invited; almost no racial prejudice)


  • Agatha Christie

Weird kind of Labour who doesn’t like the lower classes

  • Ruth Rendell

Voted Conservative, fed up with politics

  • Edmund Crispin


  • Michael Gilbert
  • Cyril Hare
  • P.D. James

Feminist Anglo-Catholic intellectual, with odd attitude to Jews

  • Dorothy L. Sayers

Weird kind of Catholic Distributionist anti-Jew liberal who didn’t believe in evolution

  • G.K. Chesterton

Barking mad

  • Anthony Berkeley (pro-murdering people, simultaneously anti-Jew AND anti-Nazi, while Wychford Poisoning Case will give a feminist fits – what a woman needs is a damn good spanking)


  • Henry Wade


  • Josephine Bell (wrote for middle-aged, middle-brow, middle class; doesn’t like Jews, blacks, or lesbians)
  • R. Austin Freeman (have you read my tract about eugenics?)
  • Philip MacDonald (did you know that black people can be identified by their stink in the dark, and that white women who cross racial boundaries are utterly depraved murderesses?  Also proposed that capital punishment should be replaced with torture to death)
  • Carolyn Wells

Far right

  • J.J. Connington (Totalitarian)



  • Margery Allingham
  • Christianna Brand
  • Christopher Bush
  • Michael Innes


  • S.S. Van Dine

Crime in Kensington (C. St. John Sprigg)

By C. St. John Sprigg

First published: UK, Eldon, 1933; US, McVeagh / Dial Press, 1933, as Pass the Body

4 stars

With much murmuring and personal comment the crowd made way for her, until some blithe spirit at the back called out to her in fruity cockney, “Hi, miss, are you carrying away the body in that there box?”

This seemed to tickle the crowd, and somebody else shouted, “Show us the body, miss.  Be a sport.”

Mrs. Salterton-Deeley prided herself on the good-humoured savoir-faire with which she managed the lower classes.  Smiling, she snapped up the catch of the hat-box and opened the lid.

“There you are,” she said.

Inside was a severed human head; the head, in fact, of Mrs. Budge.

Sprigg - Crime in Kensington.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The English blurb promises “something very drastic in the way of thrillers”.  There’s an “atmosphere of sinister foreboding”; “gruesome and horrifying” happenings; and “a whole host of yet more sinister events”.

Nonsense!  It’s not a Poe/Carr tale of terror, slathered in Kensington gore; it’s an early version of the Innes/Crispin comedy: a detective story written by a Clever Young Man, full of comic characters and dismemberment played for laughs.

Quite simply, it’s fun.

The proprietress of a sinister hotel goes missing; she turns up strewn throughout the place.  Rest in pieces, as they say.

Possible suspects include a religious maniac; a spinster who likes cats and séances; an Egyptian medical student; and a bacteriologist who adopted the Mozarabic rite.

Young journalist Charles Venables is assigned to cover the story – and solve it before the police.  Whenever the Mercury writes about a crime in future, their public will think of them as the paper that was cleverer than the police.

Not that the police are dumb, by any means, though it does take Inspector Bray till Chapter 11 to learn what the reader has suspected from page 2.

Where the book suffers is its lack of a SURPRISE! ending.  I was onto the murderer from the very start (Chapter II).  Like a lot of British writers of the period, Sprigg wasn’t very good at concealing his criminal; Carr and Christie would have made the smart reader suspect X, while really pinning it on Y (probably the nurse).

Christie, incidentally, used the trick for concealing the body in a short story (Partners in Crime).


A very few pages of Crime in Kensington are sufficient to warn the reader that he is in for something very drastic in the way of thrillers.  The atmosphere of sinister foreboding which has settled down on the private hotel at which, on the suggestion of Lady Viola Buxley, Charles Venables has taken up his abode, the queer collection of guests – the furtive young Egyptian, the psychic and hysterical spinster, the clergyman who holds a medical degree – no the no less mysterious proprietor and proprietress, all seem to presage some peculiar and calamitous disaster.  And when something very soon does happen, something particularly gruesome and horrifying, it is only the prelude to a whole host of yet more sinister events.

For those who like their thrills in plenty, Crime in Kensington is just the thing.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (16th March 1933, 120w)

Sat R (13th May 1933, 130w):

Out of the hidden peculiarities of the Garden Hotel, seemingly so humdrum, Mr. St. John Sprigg has woven an exceedingly cunning entertainment, in which the human passions are lightly intermingled with horror and with comedy, and yet not so artificially as to seem unnatural.  [Pass the Body] is that comparatively rara avis—a detective story constructed on a basis of probability, in which the characters behave like real men and women.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 9th July 1933, 200w)

Sat R of Lit (15th July 1933, 30w):

Unusual tale told with zest, humour, original characters.  Love interest present but not too conspicuous.


Books (16th July 1933, 320w):

Should this brief notice meet the eye of somebody craving a pleasing enough jumble of mystery fooleries, he may be assured of acquiring same in this volume…  Mr. Sprigg isn’t so awfully experienced at writing fiction, but his tale is amusing, just the same.


Boston Transcript (9th August 1933, 200w):

The story is well written, cleverly developed and dull only now and then.

Bryant & May On the Loose and Off the Rails (Christopher Fowler)

Christopher Fowler, I’d hazard, is One of Us.

He’s written newspaper columns praising John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell, and S.S. Van Dine (as well as later writers like Peter Dickinson and H.R.F. Keating).  He’s a fan of Michael Innes, while one of his books is a nod to Edmund Crispin’s Moving Toyshop.

He laments the lack of imagination in contemporary “realistic” crime fiction, considering himself a “dissident writer … prepared to present ideas rather than pursuing false credibility.

“There are so many other crime stories to tell, farcical, tragic, contemporary and strange.  It’s time readers were allowed to discover them.”

” Golden Age mysteries frequently featured absurd, surreal crimes investigated by wonderfully eccentric sleuths.  The form was treated as something joyous and playful.”

Fowler - On Loose.jpgFowler’s own books burst with joy, playfulness, and a lively intelligence; anyone who likes the literate, imaginative detective story (from Mitchell and Innes to Hill), or Doctor Who, The Avengers, or Nebulous, should read him.

His books bring an exuberant, Golden Age baroque imaginative sensibility to contemporary London.

My favourites are the apocalyptic Water Room (2004), and Ten Second Staircase (2006), a brilliant commentary on celebrity culture and mythmaking.

His own “wonderfully eccentric sleuths” are two elderly coppers, Arthur Bryant and John May, of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, charged with investigating such “absurd, surreal crimes” as a serial killer stalking a production of Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers, man-eating tigers, and impossible disappearances.

Bryant is a cantankerous expert on the arcane; he leads tours of historical London, consults white witches, makes computers and phones melt by being in the same room, and looks for the pattern behind the crime.

May is more the straight man: an elegant technology whiz, interested in people.

But Bryant & May are finely matched.

In Bryant & May On the Loose (2009), their enemies in the Home Office have closed the PCU down after the scandalous revelations of The Victoria Vanishes.

But not for long.

The discovery of a severed head in a freezer, and sightings of what appears to be a Slavic forest god have important political ramifications.

It’s a complex, vividly told police procedural, but rather difficult to follow in parts.

Fowler - Off Rails full.jpgBryant & May Off the Rails (2010) begins as a manhunt, then turns into the sort of tight whodunit, with a small circle of suspects, all with opportunity, I really enjoy.

A psychotic killer is hiding in the Underground; and a student vanishes from a moving Tube train in the two minutes it takes to travel between two stops.  Are anarchists involved?

The solution is clever, but I’m not sure whether a reader is given enough clues to figure it out.





Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth


So Doctor Who is now a Time Lady.

Jodie Whittaker’s casting has been hailed, as Xavier points out, as a great blow for female emancipation in some quarters, and with horror in others.

I don’t really care whether Jodie Whittaker is the first female Doctor Who.  It’s been mooted since the ’80s – Tom Baker suggested it in jest, and creator Sydney Newman in earnest.

Both sides (a woman Dr Who is a triumph for feminism! / the BBC’s insidious homosexual liberal agenda is corrupting our youth!) irritate. Besides, identity politics are reductive and divisive; ability and character should matter, not skin colour, chromosomes, or sexual orientation.

The important question, then, is whether Whittaker’s good in the role.

She’s likeable and fun.  She’s also a safe choice: a scripted zany, rather like Tennant, Smith, or the later Capaldi, but rather diffident, empathetic.  I’d have liked, really, to see someone more formidably eccentric – a Beatrix Lehmann, Sylvia Coleridge, Mary Morris, Elizabeth Spriggs type.

Actually, Sharon D. Clarke, playing Grace, the black granny, would have made a good Doctor.  She has warmth, intelligence, and presence.

As for the story…  It looks pretty.  The script, though, is generic – like Power Rangers, only with better characterization.  Males, worryingly, are incompetent – cowardly, curmudgeonly, or homicidal.  Chibnall is also prone to big mission statements.

I liked Moffat more than Davies, but had problems with both. RTD was often cheesy emotional, and used the story to hang big emotional setpieces on. (I couldn’t stand Tennant, either.) Moffat’s Dr. Who was insular, more interested in series mythology and fetishizing the Doctor than in exploring the universe, and asking questions. He wrote some really clever episodes, though, and I enjoyed the last two seasons (especially “Heaven Sent” and the run with Bill).

Chibnall’s Dr. Who credentials include 42 (bad), The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and The Power of Three (all mediocre), plus the abysmal Torchwood.  That’s not a promising pedigree.  This might be like Nicholas Briggs taking over the helm of Big Finish from Gary Russell, when an inventive, imaginative range settled for merely competent.

(When was the last really great Dr. Who audio play?  It can’t have been Night Thoughts and The Kingmaker, all the way back in 2006, surely?)

Dr. Who shouldn’t do “competent”; it should be rich and strange and mad.  (Anybody remotely interesting is mad, in some way or another.)

It’s practically its own genre. It’s at the intersection of B-movie, avant garde theatre, rep Shakespeare and absurdist comedy.

On one level, it’s an exciting adventure show that mixes horror with high comedy, sending impressionable youngsters hurtling behind the sofa, while older viewers laugh at the Doctor’s wit.

On another, it is (to the horror of moralists like Mary Whitehouse) liberal humanist propaganda (with a side order of strangulation by obscene vegetable matter), in which the hero wins the day by being curious, asking questions, and challenging bureaucracy and authority.

On another, it is an intellectual comedy that deals in social satire, hard science and high end physics, evolutionary theory, Buddhist parables, and cultural relativism.

While having taxmen made of seaweed, dangerous monsters that decompose into narcotics, executioners made of liquorice allsorts, and alien criminal masterminds with six copies of the Mona Lisa in their cellar (with “This is a fake” written in felt pen).

And a madman in a box who lands in someone else’s story and warps the narrative around him.

The TARDIS doesn’t just travel in time and space; it travels in story. One story might show the Doctor land in a Shakespearean drama; the next, Hammer Horror or a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu; after that, a hard SF story rewritten by Tom Stoppard, or The Prisoner of Zenda with androids.

The show is, as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor observed, serious about what it does, not about the way it does it. As script editor Douglas Adams (yes, of H2GT2G fame) said, the programme is “complex enough for the kids to enjoy, and simple enough for the adults to follow”’.

Unsurprisingly, I lean much more towards rad than trad, and frock than gun.  My favourite TV story is Ghost Light.  My favourite Dr. Who writers include Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams, Donald Cotton, Lawrence Miles, Dave Stone, and Paul Magrs, with a dash of Paul Cornell, Jim Mortimore, and (of course) Terrance Dicks.  (If you understand that paragraph, drop me a line.)



Julian Symons: An overview

Prompted by the Puzzle Doctor’s review of The Colour of Murder

Julian Symons’s works are primarily anti-detective stories, closer to Kafka than Christie.

(Note: There are a handful of successful orthodox works – for instance, Bland Beginning and The Plot Against Roger Rider.)

Symons is concerned with power, irrationality, “the violence behind respectable faces” (in John M. Reilly, Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers.  New York: St Martin’s Press, 1980), and the relation of the individual to an inhumane and uncaring society (Larry E. Grimes, “Julian Symons”, in Earl F. Bargainnier, Twelve Englishmen of Mystery, 1984Grimes, 1984).

Symons’s work is at once Absurdist, full of surreal imagery and symbols, and Naturalist, with suburban settings, sexual psychology, and realistic crime.  The protagonist is often ineffectual or a miserable failure (Symons thought he was too fond of ‘weedy’ characters); his fantasies starkly contrast with the harshness of reality; and he either discovers or loses his identity.

For Symons’s admirers, such as Grimes, his work is comedy, “marked by a realistic treatment of character and scene, a coherent and consistent view of self and society, and a penetrating analysis of the relation of masks, dream, game and fantasy to life in a systematised, sanitised, urbanised world”.

To his detractors, Symons is Julian the Apostate, the man whose views on the superiority of the crime novel to the detective story have influenced almost every critic since.

From the detective story to the crime novel

Symons’ history of the genre (Bloody Murder, 1974) is teleological.  The inferior detective story, an artificial puzzle without character or theme, developed into the superior crime novel, “a bag of literary all sorts ranging from comedy to tragedy, from realistic portraits of society to psychological investigation of an individual”.

The form began in the 19th century with Gaboriau and Fortuné du Boisgobey in France, Edgar Allan Poe in America, and Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens in Britain.  The detective story reached its first peak with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in 1887.  Doyle was followed in the Edwardian period by G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, and A.E.W. Mason, all of whom were good stylists.

Then came the Great War, and the detective story degenerated into an artificial puzzle, written by boring writers such as R. Austin Freeman or Freeman Wills Crofts, whom Symons dubbed the ‘Humdrums’.  These writers were popular in the 1920s, and all was gloom and despair.

Even flashier writers like Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen were more concerned with plot construction and ingenuity than with realism, social commentary, or psychology.  Because these writers were only interested in the problem, their books were artificial and trivial—in short, sub-literary.

“The characteristic detective story has almost no literary merit, [but] may still be an ingenious, cunningly deceptive and finely constructed piece of work.”

“To abjure voluntarily the interplay of character and the force of passion was eventually to reduce this kind of detective story to the level of a crossword puzzle, which can be solved but not read, to cause satiety in the writers themselves, and to breed a rebellion which came sooner than has been acknowledged.”

The only hope came from Anthony Berkeley (Cox).  Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932), groundbreaking crime novels published as Francis Iles, would provide a model for future writers.

Some writers—Margery Allingham, Nicholas Blake, Ngaio Marsh, and Michael Innes—attempted to bring new life to the moribund genre by emphasising character, style and storytelling.  Nevertheless, they were still concerned with plot, however humanised.

All they managed to do, as Wagner said of Rossini, was to give a corpse a semblance of life, making its ghastly cadaver bloom with roses, while worms and maggots devoured it.

The detective story was still dead.

The Golden Age was not the main highway of crime fiction that it looked at the time, but a minor road full of interesting twists and views which petered out in a dead end.

Instead of entertainments for tired businessmen and their wives, a new approach was needed that preserved the crime element but emphasised social commentary, psychology, politics, and philosophy.

Fortunately, WWII came along.  The war exposed the detective story’s basic assumption that “human affairs are ruled by reason” and “crimes were committed by individuals, small holes torn in the fabric of society” as illusion.

Instead, writers realised that “a different world existed, one in which force was supreme and in which irrational doctrines ruled more than one nation”.

Reason, objectivity, and the search for truth had been exposed as shams.

The detective story was buried, and writers produced crime novels instead, in which there was far more emphasis on emotional states (chiefly angst and guilt), philosophy, and social commentary (ideally Existentialist or Marxist), and less of this tedious plotting and clueing.  Hurrah!

To sum up: In the detective story, the problem is more important than or excludes characterisation, atmosphere or setting.  It is politically conservative with no interest in a theme: “the detective and the puzzle are the only things that stay in the memory”.

In the crime novel, characters are more important than story; atmosphere and setting are emphasised; the attitude is often “radical in the sense of questioning some aspect of law, justice, or the way society is run”; and characters and situation are memorable.

Symons, Grimes argues, “effectively adapted crime literature to the purpose of radical social critique while pushing the genre into the realm of serious literature.”  Does he, and, if so, is this a good thing?  What effect did Symons’s reforms have on the genre?

Xavier Lechard suggests that, until Symons, the detective story was seen as tree bearing many different sorts of fruit.  Critics might prefer Carr to Crofts, Hammett to Christie, but they nevertheless respected them, and were aware of their importance to the genre.

Symons’ effect on the detective story was the same as Wagner’s on opera: everything was judged by the standards of the Artwork of the Future, and those who had different aesthetic standards were banished from the artistic canon.

Under the influence of Symons’s triumphalist propaganda, the history of the detective story—an understanding of the development of the various schools, and the influence, for instance, of Freeman, Crofts, Bailey, and Mason on Christie, Carr, and Queen—was lost.

The wheel has turned, however. . The recent effort of critics like Mike Grost, Curtis Evans, and Martin Edwards suggests that the future of detective fiction criticism lies not in a “narrowing circle”, but in establishing the history of the genre, and in reestablishing reputations.


Perhaps Symons’s hostility to the genre comes from the fact that he was not a very good plotter; the plots are often cluttered and chaotic, or the solutions are arbitrary, which may reflect his belief that we live in a chaotic world.

Many of the endings are ambiguous.  It is often unclear whether the detective has solved the mystery: either the evidence on which the detective bases his solution is wrong, or else equally tenable solutions are proposed without any indication which is the right one.

Finding out the truth can have disastrous consequences: the protagonist of The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple (1985) will be murdered by the people whom he accuses, while in The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), SPOILER the boy Paul is both detective and murderer: his investigations do harm, leading to his aunt Irene’s arrest; to secure her release, he poisons the murderer, which may represent the destructive role of the detective, who is not only a discoverer of truth but an executioner, inasmuch as Great Detectives bring guilty people to the gallows.  The restoration of order that Symons perceives as a hallmark of the conventional detective story is either absent or subverted.

The classic example is The 31st of February (1950), in which the protagonist Anderson loses his faith in reason; order is represented by Inspector Chesse, who persecutes Anderson and drives him mad.  The investigating policeman is menace, not saviour, and builds his seemingly logical case on a ‘clue’ that is ultimately misleading.  It is, therefore, both an indictment of the detective story’s emphasis on reason, and a philosophical nightmare that examines the dissociation of identity, alienation, and failed attempts to impose meaning and order on a disordered and ultimately meaningless existence.

Nihilism recurs throughout Symons’s work.  A young couple dream of owning a caravan but are ruined in The Narrowing Circle (1954) by a lack of free will and choice; the investigators in The Progress of a Crime (1960) are not concerned with justice and the search for truth, but either with making a case stick or creating a media story.

Realism and fantasy

Symons also believed that the crime novel had to become realistic to be literary (Grimes, 1984); for this reason, reality destroys imagination and fantasy.

Perhaps the supreme example is The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968), a downbeat, depressing story, in which nasty things happen to the idealistic hero until he dies, no doubt an expression of the human condition.

Similarly, A Three Pipe Problem (1975) is not so much a Sherlock Holmes pastiche as a rebuttal of late nineteenth century Romanticism.  Because Symons was philosophically opposed to Great Detectives, the actor playing Holmes who tries to use Holmes’s methods to solve a series of murders is a pathetic figure of fun; he solves the mystery, but more through inept bumbling than through genius.  Symons subverts the grandeur and vitality of Doyle, presenting 1970s London as a drab and sordid place full of gangsters, prostitutes, lowlifes, and motor cars.