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.