Compendium of crime fiction for the whodunit buff

Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, by Julian Symons. New York: Viking. 262 pp., index. $14.95. Here is a revised, expanded version of ``Mortal Pleasures,'' the survey of crime fiction which novelist-critic Julian Symons published in 1972. Its range now extends from Edgar Allen Poe through P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, and it includes incisive considerations of both ``serious novelists and entertainers,'' many of the latter briefly discussed in capsule paragraphs under the heading ``Big Producers and Big Sellers, Curiosities and Singletons.'' Symons even presents himself as an unscholarly enthusia st who offers here only ``a book expressing personal preferences'' -- but ``Bloody Murder'' seems to me, even if not a definitive history, something more than a miscellany of opinions.

For example, Symons clearly sketches the styles and emphases that distinguish ``the Golden Age'' (Britain in the '20s and '30s; the heyday of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and their peers) from American mysteries emerging from ``the pulp tradition'' (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and their imitators), and from postwar stories in which the traditional -- and reassuring -- central figure of ``the Great Detective'' is increasingly absent.

Symons adds intriguing ``extras'' like a revealing discussion of ``the rise of the circulating libraries'' as stimulus to mystery writers, and an absorbing ``Short History of the Spy Story.'' He willingly revises earlier opinions, never hesitating to acknowledge errors or misjudgments, and his casually civilized prose is delightful.

Few aficionados will quarrel much with Symons's evaluations of individual writers -- though he's rough on those dated ``classics'' Sax Rohmer and Robert van Gulik and declares Sayers's Peter Wimsey stories ``pompous and boring.'' Conversely, he gives generous credit to S. S. Van Dine's ``outrageous cleverness'' (with all due respect to Ogden Nash's deservedly famous suggestion that ``Philo Vance/ Needs a kick in the pance'').

If he possibly overrates Georges Simenon (whose productivity alone scarcely merits the separate chapter given him), Symons compensates finely with several vivid pages on Wilkie Collins, an appreciative analysis of the 19th-century master Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and even an amusing few paragraphs on Jorge Luis Borges as mystery writer.

I especially like his balanced assessment of Agatha Christie (``not a good writer, but . . . a supreme mistress in the construction of puzzles . . . [with] a skill in writing light, lively, and readable dialogue that has been consistently underrated by critics''), and his sane understanding of this genre's limits, expressed as follows: ``In the highest reaches of the crime novel it is possible to create works of art, but because of their sensationalism they will always be works of a slightly flawed kind .'' The man who knows that is a thoroughly dependable guide -- for crime fiction buffs, and the general reader as well.

Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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