Death’s Darkest Face (Julian Symons)

By Julian Symons

First published: UK, Macmillan, 1990

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Symons - Death's Darkest Face.jpgUnquestionably the best Symons I’ve read so far.  It succeeds both as a crime novel and as a detective story.  The approach is similar to Dickinson’s Hindsight: the hero in the present (1960s) writes a book about his investigations into a murder that happened in his adolescence (1930s).  Geoffrey Elder’s ‘quest dominated by the search for his father … [and] to recreate differently the for ever unrealisable past’ is tied in extremely adroitly with the criminal investigation—the answer to one is the answer to the other.  The plotting is elaborate and well clued, and the ending is not only surprising, but also the logical and inevitable result of the characters involved.  A triumph.
Note that Symons himself appears as a character in the novel—Po-Mo?
Detection / investigation into past and gradual revelation excellent.  Reconstruction of 1930s and 1960s and characterisation great.  Crisp and focused in the best manner of the English arty school—Blake, early Innes.
·        Double narrative: revisiting past: Hill’s Wood Beyond and Stranger House; Rendell’s Chimney-Sweeper’s Boy.  A modern sub-genre, rather than a GA one?  Has roots in such books as Mitchell’s When Last I Died, Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Queen’s Murderer is a Fox, and works of Mary Fitt.
·        Hallmarks of Symons’s fiction: absurdism (destruction of reason after WWII); pastiche (historical or detective); naturalism (mundanity, sex, psychology, criminal underworld, working class) contrasted with protagonist’s fantasies; past / present; protagonist discovering himself; ineffectual protagonists who are miserable failures (Symons thought he was too fond of “weedy” characters); multiple solutions.


Geoffrey Elder’s quest begins when he is told that his father may have been not only an adulterer but also a murderer, and he sets out to discover the truth.  In the sixties Geoffrey is content with his slightly dingy flat, his amiable mistress and his moderately successful acting career, but the quest takes him back to the thirties when he was an idealistic teenager who thought himself in love with Melissa Paton, when the poet Hugo Headley disappeared, and when Geoffrey saw the nightmare scene that changed his life.

This is a richly patterned novel, full of surprises.  Not the least of them is the way in which the mystery is solved, for in the end it is not Geoffrey Elder but Julian Symons himself who reveals the truth about death’s darkest face.  The action moves from the sixties to the thirties and back again, with glances at the decades in between that include reflections on their changing social mores.  There is a puzzle, and one not easy to solve, but the book also charts the loving, yet muted and almost inarticulate, relationship between father and son.  This is a mystery story which is also a novel of breadth, ingenuity, elegance and style.


Times Literary Supplement (Patricia Craig, 25th May 1990):


In Bloody Murder (his history of the detective genre), Julian Symons mentions how struck he was by finding an allusion to T.S. Eliot on the opening page of “Nicholas Blake’s” first novel, A Question of Proof, in 1935, when modern poets and detective novels didn’t exactly go hand-in-hand.  His own new novel, Death’s Darkest Face, contains a poet of the 1930s—though one, to be sure, as far removed as possible from either T.S. Eliot or Nicholas Blake under his real name (Cecil Day-Lewis).  The fictional Hugo Headley, we are told straight away, cannot be attached to any of the prevailing ideologies or sombre literary styles of the day.  “Swinburnian” is among the adjectives used to describe his output.  His poetry is suspect, and so, it becomes clear, was his behaviour.  He wore his hair rather long, cultivated a colourful manner, and wasn’t overscrupulous in his methods of raising the wind.  Women were susceptible to his rather rumbustious allure.  His miserable North Country parents had repudiated him, but there were plenty of others, including an actress stage-named Mary Storm, who savoured the richness and the bad-hat aspect of his poetic personality.  When he disappeared one evening in 1936, leaving his Austin car parked near a beach in Kent, newspaper reports of the occurrence were at first jocular in tone, and then turned serious when he failed to return.  Thirty years later, the mystery is still a mystery, though about to yield up a few of its ingredients to a new enquirer, a boy (now grown up) who happened to be there at the time.  Geoffrey Elder’s investigations form the substance of this riveting and intricate novel—and it’s not, as it happens, a mere puzzle from the past that he’s investigating, but his own family history, and a good slice of social history into the bargain.

Symons, in Death’s Darkest Face, has opted for the expedient of putting himself into his own book—either in the interest of verisimilitude, or simply to come out in the open about the rôle of the detective novelist, who after all ordains the solution to the mystery in every case, whatever the mouthpiece he uses as a stand-in.  Geoffrey Elder’s narrative is enclosed between a preface and a postscript by Symons himself, the first explaining his connection with the affair, and the second putting forward a conclusion undetected by the narrator.  Elder got part of the way, but not the whole way.  The story, for him, ends in a hospital bed, where coshing and kicking have landed him.  Uncovering the facts about outstanding misconduct, at however distant a remove from the present, carries considerable hazards.

Geoffrey Elder’s story concerns the case of Hugo Headley, and the involvement in it of his father and his aunt Mary Storm; a shattering summer holiday at the Kentish resort of Clempstone; adolescence in the 1930s, with a tennis championship and an unattainable girl named Melissa playing a part; and reverberations from Edwardian Newcastle (to complicate the plot), and from pre-war Europe (to colour the atmosphere).  By the 1960s, when he records these events, Elder has been alternately a journalist and an actor, assisted into both occupations by his ebullient half-brother Justin, a character unknown to him before the summer of the disappearance.  It is one thing, at sixteen, to gain one half-brother, and another to suspect (as Geoffrey does) that the line may not stop there.  Clearly, there are blacked-out areas in the background of Elder père, a twice-married man in the 1930s, unlucky with both his wives, and impassive as Buster Keaton (whom he is said to resemble).

Julian Symons has an eye for the fads of the time, which lend themselves to a mildly sardonic approach—for example, the domestic eccentricities of a ginger-haired radio pundit and his free-and-easy family (the 1930s); and a “love-and-peace” revel at the home of a canon, magicians’ hats and all (the 1960s).  In the 1960s, too, we have the odd case of a sixty-two-year-old raver who met his end “while drunk or drugged at a party”.  The narrative moves easily between the different periods, with only one instance of prochronism that I can detect (when someone in the 1960s, referring to an incident of thirty years earlier, mentions the sum of “twenty pieces in the pound”), and only one inconsistency (when Geoffrey claims to be Mary Storm’s only nephew, while his irresponsible half-brother, as much his father’s son as he is, is actually standing behind him).  It raises the question of complexity of motives, how the good-hearted may connive at crimes, and considers the ways in which the dead past frequently won’t lie down; at the same time, it grips by means of the usual storyteller’s devices.  What really went on in an oppressive household near Newcastle?  What is the truth about Geoffrey Wild Elder’s wild elders?  Who is the shabby major who appears at Clempstone, acting rather oddly towards Geoffrey’s father?  What is young Melissa’s connection with the missing poet, and is she the “M” referred to in a crucial communication?  These and other matters are irresistibly intriguing.