A Three-Pipe Problem (Julian Symons)

By Julian Symons

First published: UK, Collins, 1975

3 stars

Symons - Three Pipe Problem.jpgA Sherlock Holmes pastiche with a twist.  Instead of the battered despatch box in Coutts’ Bank disgorging its contents, the Holmesian interest comes from an actor playing Holmes who decides to use Holmes’s methods to solve a series of modern “Karate Killings”.

This isn’t very successful.  Symons didn’t believe in Great Detectives, and so, although he solves the mystery, it’s more by inept bumbling than by reason, and there’s none of the grandeur or vitality of Conan Doyle’s splendid melodramas.  Instead, 1970s London is drab and sordid, full of gangsters, actors, and motor-cars.  (Symons’s favourite theme of reality vs. fantasy—the man who wants to be Holmes and sees everything through the lens of the canon, lives in reconstruction of 221B Baker Street.)  The plot is dodgy, and would make a much better short story (used by Ellery Queen).  It’s obvious from well before the halfway point that the murderer must be a traffic warden, but the motive (revenge for running over dog) is very unconvincing, and the murderer’s identity arbitrary.


The life of actor Sheridan Haynes has been transformed by his immense success as TV’s Sherlock Holmes.  Sher, as his friends call him, has been a passionate Sherlockian from his youth, and he’s delighted when the studio suggests that he should live in Baker Street, in rooms that contain many relics of Sherlock’s famous cases.  And Sher fancies himself as a detective in the Holmesian vein.  When some mysterious karate killings take place, he is drawn into a search for the murderer.

Julian Symons’s book will delight all lovers of the Holmes stories.  Some of Sher’s deductions have the authentic flavour of the master, others go disastrously and comically astray.  Sher himself, old-fashioned, hating modern life and longing for gas-lit Victorian London, is a bit of a stick but also a most engaging character.  And the mystery in which he becomes enmeshed—and eventually solves—is a real mystery, set in a vividly realised contemporary London, with a splendid climax in which Sher stalks a killer, and is stalked himself, through a swirling Victorian fog.  This is perhaps the most delightfully high-spirited book Mr. Symons has written.


Times Literary Supplement (Philip French, 21st February 1975):


The gaunt sage of 221B Baker Street continues to cast a long shadow.  A whole industry is nourished on it, the cottage side of which has just produced a couple of likeable lightweight books with similarly resonant titles [the other is Meyer’s The Seven Per Cent Solution].  The lesser one is Julian Symons’s Crime Club novel, A Three Pipe Problem.  Its hero, a middle-aged actor called Sheridan Haynes, is playing Sherlock Holmes in a popular television series.  He gets caught up in the investigation of several real murders (the “Karate killings” about which all London is talking) and applies to them the techniques of the world’s first consulting detective.  Unlike the protagonist of James Goldman’s play They Might Be Giants, a paranoid New York lawyer who really believes he’s Holmes and sees the world around him as a series of bizarre clues, Symons’s hero is merely a sad, ageing Holmes fan who knows the Conan Doyle canon backwards.

There are two principal weaknesses in A Three Pipe Problem.  First, the “real” world of television companies, Kray-style gangsters and eccentric traffic wardens is altogether too cosy and insufficiently credible to be set against the mythical late Victorian world of Holmes.  Secondly, the Baker Street side is never properly integrated in the narrative and remains so much fancy dressing on a fairly ordinary cake.


A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

The best thing about the book is the title, and that was suggested to the author by Ngaio Marsh, who picked up the phrase you know where.  For the rest, it is difficult to work up any interest in an actor who plays Sherlock Holmes in a TV series and attempts to help the police in a succession of “karate killings”.  The attempt to make everything Sherlockian dims the plot, so that the reader has to be content with bottled essence of nostalgia.

Symons - Three Pipe Problem.jpg