The Blackheath Poisonings (Julian Symons)

By Julian Symons

First published: UK, Collins, 1978

5 stars

Symons - Blackheath.jpgThe Symons I’ve enjoyed most so far.  It’s not really a detective story, more a mystery in the line of Wilkie Collins, although several of the characters recall Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga (Isabel a femme fatale like Irene).  The murders emerge as part of the plot, rather than being investigated in great detail; instead, there are a lot of character vignettes and scenes, making it more of a novel with detective interest than a detective story per se.

The ending is pretty easy to anticipate—I worked out that it was George two-thirds of the way through (the clue of the corset is pretty much the only clue in the book, and its meaning is obvious; also his reluctance to marry), and knew that Paul would probably kill him well before the deed was done.

The Victorian period detail is well done (nice touches in the early Sherlock Holmes stories in The Strand and a first run of Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan), and the Victorian hypocrisy and morality are effective.
·       Paul is at once detective and murderer.  His investigations do harm—lead to Irene’s arrest; to secure her release, poisons the murderer (destructive rôle of detective—executioner, inasmuch as Great Detectives bring guilty parties to the gallows?).


In Blackheath during the 1890s a closely knit family live in the extraordinary Victorian Gothic folly Albert house, built to resemble a church, and the equally strange neo-Palladian Victoria Villa.  In Albert House Harriet, the matriarch, is established with her submissive daughter Charlotte.  Victoria Villa houses another daughter, her husband and stepson, and a son and his attractive wife.  There is a peaceful routine of Sunday lunch, parlour games, local poetry readings.  And then this is interrupted by a death.  Gastric fever, says pompous Dr. Porterfield, but young Paul Vandervent, the stepson, is doubtful…

Julian Symons’s book is a new departure for him.  He calls it ‘a Victorian murder mystery’, but it is also a delightful period novel, with characters whose talk and behaviour is completely convincing.  We see much of what happens through the eyes of the engaging young Paul, who is just leaving school, thinks himself in love with the beautiful Isabel, and writes verses about her.  It is Paul who first senses that something is wrong, pursues various trails more or less successfully, and after a trial involving some of the actual legal luminaries of the time, offers a solution to the Blackheath mystery in an epilogue.

This is a fascinating book, whether it be considered as a baffling mystery, or as a story illuminating several facets of Victorian life, and one which is in every way worthy of an acknowledged master of crime.


Times Literary Supplement (T.J. Binyon, 11th August 1978):


It is the early 1890s; in a villa on Blackheath built to resemble an East Anglian church by Charles Mortimer, a successful toy manufacturer (now deceased), live his widowed elderly daughter, Harriet Collard, her unmarried daughter, Charlotte, and her young nephew, Bertie.  A mile away, in a mock Palladian villa also built by Charles Mortimer, live Harriet’s younger daughter, Beatrice, her husband, Roger Vandervent, and her stepson, Paul, together with Harriet’s son George and his wife, Isabel.  (A family tree would have been a help to the reader.)  In the course of a few months three of the above are poisoned and die.  Julian Symons’s twentieth crime story is a superb detective novel of an original kind, which, while offering the reader as much information as anyone, ends with a surprising and totally unexpected conclusion.  At the same time his evocation of this late Victorian epoch—a kind of black Diary of a Nobody—seems to ring true in every respect.  It does, however, prompt one thought: crime writers seem more and more to be turning their hand to Victorian crime stories (mostly good), further adventures of Sherlock Holmes (mostly bad) and novels set in the twenties or thirties (mostly indifferent), presumably feeling that the traditional plot and characters can nowadays be treated in period dress, as pastiche.  Julian Symons has joined this movement with his last two novels, but, characteristically, both his Holmesian fantasy (A Three Pipe Problem) and his Victorian murder mystery are not imitations, or reworking of old themes, but totally new departures.


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

Knowing this able writer, one is not surprised that his first attempt at a period piece (1890) should be faithful in manners and language.  Unfortunately, some of the attitudes about state, church, and society are of the 20th century, and the author’s narrative élan is strangely weak, though the plot outline is excellent.  The domineering dowager’s acts and commands ruin half a dozen lives, but the individuals remain dim, and it is only in spots and in the surprise dénouement that one finds the true craftsman.