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Bland Beginning

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Bland Beginnings


First published in 1949

© Estate of Julian Symons; House of Stratus 1949-2011


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.


The right of Julian Symons to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.


This edition published in 2011 by House of Stratus, an imprint of

Stratus Books Ltd., Lisandra House, Fore Street, Looe,

Cornwall, PL13 1AD, UK.


Typeset by House of Stratus.


A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library and the Library of Congress.




This is a fictional work and all characters are drawn from the author’s imagination.

Any resemblance or similarities to persons either living or dead are entirely coincidental.



About the Author


Julian Symons was born in 1912 in London. He was the younger brother, and later biographer, of the writer A.J.A. Symons.

Aged twenty five, he founded a poetry magazine which he edited for a short time, before turning to crime writing. This was not to be his only interest, however, as in his eighty-two years he produced an enormously varied body of work. Social and military history, biography and criticism were all subjects he touched upon with remarkable success, and held a distinguished reputation in each field. Nonetheless, it is primarily for his crime writing that he is remembered. His novels were consistently highly individual and expertly crafted, raising him above other crime writers of his day.


Symons commenced World War II as a recognised conscientious objector, but nevertheless ended up serving in the Royal Armoured Corps from 1942 until 1944, when he was invalided out. A period as an advertising copywriter followed, but was soon abandoned in favour of full time writing. Many prizes came his way as a result, including two
Edgar Awards
and in 1982 he received the accolade of being named as
Grand Master
of the Mystery Writers of America – an honour accorded to only three other English writers before him: Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and Daphne Du Maurier. Symons then succeeded Agatha Christie as the president of Britain’s Detection Club, a position he held from 1976 to 1985, and in 1990 he was awarded the
Cartier Diamond Dagger
from the British Crime Writers for his lifetime’s achievement in crime fiction.

He published over thirty crime novels and story collections between 1945 and 1994; with the works combining different elements of the classic detective story and modern crime novel, but with a clear leaning toward the latter, especially situations where ordinary people get drawn into extraordinary series of events – a trait he shared with Eric Ambler. He also wrote two modern-day Sherlock Holmes pastiches. In
A Three Pipe Problem
the detective was ‘...a television actor,
Sheridan Hayes
, who wears the mask of
Sherlock Holmes
and assumes his character’. Several of Julian Symons’ works have been filmed for television.


Julian Symons died in 1994.





Your three-months eyes outblue the cobalt sky

And stare at depthless images that lie

Cocooned in simple webs of sleep and hunger.

Their gaze reflects a fantasy of younger

And stranger days when friendly lions residing

Within the chintzy chair roared out of hiding:

Before we knew the transverse alchemies

Corroding the bright Radicals to Tories

And turning poems to detective stories.



The French call a typewriter
une machine á ècrire
. It is a description that could well be applied to Julian Symons, except the writing he produced had nothing about it smelling of the mechanical. The greater part of his life was devoted to putting pen to paper. Appearing in 1938, his first book was a volume of poetry,
Confusions About X
. In 1996, after his death, there came his final crime novel,
A Sort of Virtue
(written even though he knew he was under sentence from an inoperable cancer) beautifully embodying the painful come-by lesson that it is possible to achieve at least a degree of good in life.

His crime fiction put him most noticeably into the public eye, but he wrote in many forms: biographies, a memorable piece of autobiography (
Notes from Another Country
), poetry, social history, literary criticism coupled with year-on-year reviewing and two volumes of military history, and one string thread runs through it all. Everywhere there is a hatred of hypocrisy, hatred even when it aroused the delighted fascination with which he chronicled the siren schemes of that notorious jingoist swindler, Horatio Bottomley, both in his biography of the man and fictionally in
The Paper Chase
The Killing of Francie Lake

That hatred, however, was not a spew but a well-spring. It lay behind what he wrote and gave it force, yet it was always tempered by a need to speak the truth. Whether he was writing about people as fiction or as fact, if he had a low opinion of them he simply told the truth as he saw it, no more and no less.

This adherence to truth fills his novels with images of the mask. Often it is the mask of hypocrisy. When, as in
Death’s Darkest Face
Something Like a Love Affair
, he chose to use a plot of dazzling legerdemain, the masks of cunning are startlingly ripped away.

The masks he ripped off most effectively were perhaps those which people put on their true faces when sex was in the air or under the exterior. ‘Lift the stone, and sex crawls out from under,’ says a character in that relentless hunt for truth,
The Progress of a Crime
, a book that achieved the rare feat for a British author, winning Symons the US Edgar Allen Poe Award.

Julian was indeed something of a pioneer in the fifties and sixties bringing into the almost sexless world of the detective story the truths of sexual situations. ‘To exclude realism of description and language from the crime novel’ he writes in
Critical Occasions
, ‘is almost to prevent its practitioners from attempting any serious work.’ And then the need to unmask deep-hidden secrecies of every sort was almost as necessary at the end of his crime-writing life as it had been at the beginning. Not for nothing was his last book subtitled
A Political Thriller.

H R F Keating

London, 2001


Extract from
The Biographical Dictionary

Rawlings, Martin (1835–1876), one of the most interesting minor poets of the nineteenth century, was born on the 3rd April 1835, in St William Square, Belgravia. His father, the Rev. Stephen Rawlings, was Minister of a Presbyterian congregation, and Martin completed his education at a Unitarian College. His father hoped that Martin would enter the Dissenting ministry, but it soon became evident that the boy had no inclination to the Church, and the family’s financial circumstances made it impossible for his father to indulge Martin’s wish to study at a University. For some three years after leaving the Unitarian College he lived an idle and quarrelsome life at home, and although it does not seem that he indulged in any very serious dissipation, even such small debts as he incurred were of serious importance to one in his father’s straitened position. Martin decided early in life that he wished to be a poet, and he wrote a great deal of verse between his eighteenth and twenty-first years. None of it has been preserved, and he acknowledged in later life that it was perhaps not worth preserving; but there is evidence that at the time he was indignant at the failure of his family and friends to appreciate his work. At the age of twenty-one, after a family quarrel more bitter than usual, he left England to live in Italy.

We have only brief glimpses of his life in Italy during the next fifteen years, as it was seen through the literary circles of Rome and Florence, who did not share his own conviction of his genius. He married Maria Tambinetta, a beautiful Italian girl, and maintained her and his young son very precariously by occasional journalism, combined with many odd occupations, such as (for a short time) that of gravedigger’s mate in a cemetery. In 1868 the publication in England of
Passion and Repentance,
a series of sonnets on the themes of sacred and profane love, made him famous overnight. This fame was partly the result of a genuine critical appreciation of the force and splendour of Rawlings’ poetry: but the effect of this genuine admiration was enhanced by the storm of moral indignation which greeted the book. It was denounced, in a typical phrase, as “a most indecent contribution to the school of fleshly poetry, which revels in revealing the ignobler impulses of mankind”. Many famous men of letters took part in the furious controversy that followed, in which the purely poetic merits of
Passion and Repentance
remained largely unconsidered.

Although there can be no doubt that the book owed some of its success to this notoriety, Rawlings was delighted by the praise, and also by the improvement in his financial position brought about by the book’s sales. A second son had been born to him, and his early wildness gave way to a comparatively humdrum and peaceful existence. Before the publication of
Passion and Repentance
he had been converted to the Roman Catholic faith, and his two later books,
(1869) and
Poems Lyrical and Devout
(1871) were largely inspired by his conversion. These books were greeted tepidly by the critics, but had a large sale.

Rawlings had for some time considered returning to England; and now a fortunate circumstance made his return necessary, and at the same time placed him in a position where monetary worries troubled him no more. A cousin, John Rawlings, who had left England at the same time as himself to become a gold prospector in Australia, had been fortunate in his adventure. John Rawlings died on his voyage home from the Antipodes and the poet found himself the sole beneficiary of his considerable fortune in Australian gold and English real estate.

In 1871 Martin Rawlings returned to England, and took up residence at a house in the village of Millingham. He showed himself a surprisingly capable man of business, and appeared to enjoy the problems involved in the management of the estate and in the conversion of the remainder of his cousin’s fortune into freehold property. He lived a simple and ascetic life, was strict and even severe in personal habits, and wrote no more poetry. His wife, who had been a faithful companion in times of hardship, died in 1873, and Martin was much affected by her loss. He died quite suddenly three years later, from a heart attack, at the early age of forty-one.

There is something enigmatic in both Rawlings’ life and his work. Throughout his life he had few friends; none of them knew him intimately, and we possess very scanty information about the important part of his life lived in Italy. It is difficult, also, to estimate the final worth of his poetry. At the time of their publication the sonnet series,
Passion and Repentance,
astonished many critics by force and strangeness of epithet; today some of the strangeness seems merely obscure, and the extravagance of epithet is not pleasing to a modern taste. There is, nevertheless, an undeniable vigour in these sonnets, and it is on these pagan pieces that his reputation is likely to be maintained. His two later books are certainly inferior to the first, although they contain one or two delightful lyrics, which have deservedly found a place in anthologies.

A brief account of Rawlings’ early life and family quarrels, together with a sketch of his life in Italy, can be found in “A Turbulent Boy”, one of the essays in Michael Blackburn’s
Sesame Without Lilies.

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