review: a man called jones

A Man Called Jones by Julian Symons (1947)

This novel features Julian Symons’ Inspector Bland of Scotland Yard.  It is the second novel in which Inspector Bland appears (the first being The Immaterial Murder Case).  These are the only two novels I have read by Symons but my impression so far is that they do not have to be read in order.  The plot of the novel revolves around solving the murder of Lionel Hargreaves, son of Edward “EH” Hargreaves, owner of the Hargreaves Advertising Agency.  The murder occurs during a 25th anniversary/birthday celebration for the agency that is being held at the Hargreaves home. Upon discovering the body of his son, EH calls in Scotland Yard. Enter Inspector Bland, and the search for a murderer begins.

A Man Called Jones is a prime example of classic, golden age detective fiction, and it starts with Inspector Bland himself.  His last name, as you would expect, is a signal of his demeanor, his personality, and his general disposition.  Thus, when his behavior is anything but bland, the reader knows that she should sit up and take notice.  Like the figure of other “Great Detectives” in golden age detective fiction, Bland does have a handful of mannerisms that make him unique and singular, most noticeably the way that he holds the tip of his pencil against his teeth while in thought.  The thing about Inspector Bland is that he is indeed bland, and so although he is the central character in the novel, he’s also a difficult character to become invested in. He’s not offensive, but he’s also not as fully drawn or developed like other Great Detectives of the tradition, such as Hercule Poirot.

Other conventions of the genre are present in the novel—a somewhat isolated or limited access setting for the murder, a closed circle of suspects, and a full statement of the case to all interested parties after the murderer has been caught.  At the end of the novel, order is restored and justice has been served, and all of the characters are free to go back to their lives without further delay or concern.  The murder plot is a puzzle for the reader, and though I felt that I knew who the murderer was before it was revealed, I’m not sure that I would say all of the clues were laid out for me.  One thing I have noticed Symons does in both of the novels that I have read is that he has Bland select a confidante/helper from the pool of suspects.  Both times it has been someone that Bland knows, and both times it has been someone that can give Bland inside access to the group of suspects.  I don’t know if this happens in all of the Inspector Bland novels, but it’s different and something that gives these novels a kind of trademark that readers can come to expect.  In a hardboiled detective novel the reader would expect this confidante/helper to betray the detective but in Symons world, it seems that the confidante/helper is above suspicion and trustworthy.  Indeed, in this novel, Bland refers to his helper as his Watson, à la Sherlock Holmes.

In general, I am a fan of detective fiction and I enjoy defending it against charges of being formulaic and mere “brain candy” instead of “important” literature.  Not all literature needs to be important in my opinion and reading should be a pleasure, not a torment.  Still, I can see why detective fiction has these charges leveled against it, and this particular novel displays much of the ammunition used by critics who accuse the genre of being subpar.  While I was interested in discovering who had killed Lionel Hargreaves, I wasn’t really all that engaged with the story, and the characters weren’t all that interesting to me.  They felt like stock, flat characters who occupied the world of the novel in order to serve a purpose.  The reason why the Poirot novels escape this criticism, at least for me, is that at least the Belgian detective is interesting and commands my attention.  I can’t say the same for Bland.  If it was Symons’ intention to create a bland Great Detective who is different from Holmes, Marple, and Poirot, he certainly succeeded.  The consequence, though, is a character that I don’t really care about.  Still another criticism of golden age detective fiction is that it’s completely consumable and then forgettable, and though I think this criticism is unfair, I have to admit that A Man Called Jones is a totally forgettable read for me.  I consumed it, and after writing this review, I’m going to forget it.  Finally, as I’m sure I have demonstrated so far in the books that I review on my blog, I am a big fan of serialized fiction.  I love seeing characters develop and evolve as the series progresses.  However, I’m adamant that the primary characters do show development and evolution, and I also expect that with each new installment the author will pull me so deeply into the world and characters he or she has created that once I get to the last page, I’ll want to pick up the next installment.  Unfortunately, with these Inspector Bland novels, that’s not the case.

If you like golden age detective fiction and haven’t sampled anything by Julian Symons, you might give this novel a try.  Inspector Bland might be more to your liking than mine.  In the final analysis, though, I wouldn’t recommend adding this book to your to-be-read list.

review: the lady in the lake

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler (1943)

This is the fourth novel featuring Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled private detective, Philip Marlowe.  The story begins with Marlowe meeting his client, Derace Kingsley.  Kingsley wants Marlowe to find his wife, Crystal Kingsley, who hasn’t been seen by anyone in a month.  Mrs. Kingsley was last seen at the mountain cabin the couple owns, and that is where Marlowe begins his investigation.  As the story develops, Marlowe once again must make his way through a world where everyone has something to hide, surfaces can be deceiving, and law enforcement is not only ineffective but corrupt.  Marlowe continues to be a flawed character and yet, just as Chandler mandated, he is the best man in his world. As is typical in hardboiled detective fiction, the plot is intricate and the disappearance of Mrs. Kingsley opens the door for murder, which Marlowe aims to solve while still protecting his client.  The climax of the novel for readers who have caught some of the clues but haven’t fully figured out the resolution to the mystery is both satisfying and surprising. The novel ends a bit abruptly but with one of Marlowe’s characteristic observations that possess multiple meanings.

The first six weeks of my summer vacation were spent teaching a course on classic and hardboiled detective fiction, and so I just recently re-read the first book in the Philip Marlowe series, The Big Sleep.  I think that rereading the first book in the series and teaching a class on the genre has definitely impacted my reading of The Lady in the Lake.  It adheres to the format and conventions of the hardboiled detective novel—there’s the femme fatale, the corruption of law enforcement, and the alternative forms of justice that the guilty are subject to.  But one of the things that makes this particular installment in this series stand out in my mind is that even though Marlowe is still very much the sleuth as loner and is still isolated and alienated from the world in which he lives and works, he’s not completely alone this time.  At the beginning of the novel he meets Sheriff Patton who is a source of help to Marlowe and who also holds, if not the exact same, then at least similar ideals of justice, morality, and ethics.  He has a personal code just as Marlowe does, and like Marlowe, he doesn’t waver from it while doing the best he can with what he’s got.  Also during the course of the investigation he meets Captain Webber, who once again is not the same as Marlowe and who sees Marlowe as a complication to the murder investigation and a dangerous, loose cannon.  The two men eventually come to at least respect each other and the struggle of the other to do good in a corrupt world.  Like The Big Sleep, Chandler gives us other characters who fall into the same category as Marlowe, and yet, it is still Marlowe who reveals the mystery and in his own (heroic) fashion, brings those who are guilty to justice.  Perhaps this is all to say that what I liked about this novel was Marlowe’s interaction with the other “good” men and I also appreciated that while the plot was intricate, it wasn’t as disconnected as some of the other Marlowe novels in that as a reader, I could see what some of the clues were adding up to and how they fit together.  This novel is by no means a “puzzle” like classic detective fiction of the Golden Age, but I didn’t feel like I was simply along for the ride as the action reached the climax.

There is something about The Lady in the Lake that makes it feel different from the first three novels in this series, but I struggle to put my finger on exactly what that is.  I think it has to do with my sense that the characters in this novel just aren’t as vividly drawn as the characters in previous novels, with Marlowe being the obvious exception.  The rest of the characters felt flat and only there to serve specific narrative and plot purposes.  If I have one complaint about the novel it is that I would have liked to see some of the other characters given more life.  Marlowe is definitely the star and the central focus of the novel (and the series as whole) but it seems that in this novel he has to do all of the heavy lifting without help from the supporting cast. In the final analysis, I would say that I liked The Lady in the Lake and would recommend it to other readers who have read any of the Philip Marlowe novels and/or readers who like early hardboiled detective fiction.  I don’t think you have to read the books in order, though I would recommend starting with The Big Sleep so that you can have a better idea of Marlowe’s philosophy, his code of ethics, and what drives him to do what he does.