CRITICAL OBSERVATIONS by Julian Symons

CRITICAL OBSERVATIONS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Though Symons is a major (if erratic) crime-writer and the author of an engaging (if unprofound) history of the crime-novel, he is a surprisingly humdrum critic of mystery-fiction; and there are only a few, slight pieces on mystery-and-crime in this highly miscellaneous collection. There are routine appreciations of Chandler (who, for better and worse, brought his ""basically sentimental aestheticism to the crime stories""); of Hammett (for Symons, The Glass Key is the sole masterpiece); of Simenon (Maigret vs. non-Maigret) There's an appealing little survey of crime-lit curiosities: the earliest mysteries, crime comic-strips, crime-parodies. And there's a terribly old-hat, patronizing bit on Agatha Christie's strengths and weaknesses. When turning to non-crime literature, Symons is not much more impressive, usually delivering sturdy, common-sensical, but uninspired totings-up of pros and cons--on Edmund Wilson, C. P. Snow, or the little magazine Scrutiny (and ""Dr. Leavis""). More distinctive: a tart glance at Kingsley Amis' oeuvre (""It would be nice if he felt no further need to convince us of his Plain Manliness""); and the notoriously snide 1960s attack on Edith Sitwell (her criticism is ""valueless,"" her late poems are lousy), which became the jumping-off point for Victoria Glendinning's recent biography. But, if Symons usually seems out of his league in criticism, he is a genial collector of lesser-known books and people: the best items here are brief salutes to poet-critic Arthur Symons (""he hoped for some mystical experience. . . but found only humdrum respectableness and then the spindrift of madness""); to near-forgotten novelist Frances Newman; to art-historian/poet/alcoholic/eccentric/chum Ruthven Todd. Plus: a neat, funny memoir of Symons' year as Visiting Writer at Amherst. Competent occasional journalism--22 pieces in all, written here and there since 1964--but without sufficient originality or stylistic vigor to seem really worthy of hard-cover compilation.

Pub Date: Nov. 11th, 1981
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin