Monday, 2 May 2011

My letters from Julian Symons

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

In my post on visiting Greenway House, I wrote about seeing a book by Julian Symons on the shelves in Agatha Christie's library. It is curious, as Julian Symon's novels were so much a part of my reading life as a teenager, that I have given him so little thought in later life. Seeing that book has made me think about him more recently so, on a visit to my parents' house, I decided to try to find his response to a fan letter that I sent him when I was a teenager.

Julian Symons, for those of you who have never heard of him (which is probably most of you, as I don't think he was a prominently known author) was a biographer, an expert of crime fiction, and a critically acclaimed crime writer. I haven't read much of his literary criticism - although a search in our local public library catalogue would seem to indicate that this has survived longer than his fiction - but I was a huge fan of his crime novels, and I also have one of his works of criticism on crime fiction ("Bloody Murder"). A Google search today which turned up a Wikipedia page tells me that he died in 1994, aged 82 - so the letters that I have from him, dated 1989 and 1991, were written to me when he was quite an old man.

I brought back one his books from my parents' house (which I am starting to think of as my stacks, as I have lots of books there that I don't have house space for and have a less immediate desire to read). I have a few of his, but I chose one that I remember fondly: "A Three Pipe Problem," in which the main character is an actor who, like Jeremy Brett, played Sherlock Holmes on television and became obsessed by the character (although, unlike Jeremy Brett, this obsession leads to solving a series of murders). I admit to being a little bit scared to re-read it. I loved his books so much as a teenager, I am very nervous of finding that - as in many things - the nostalgia is better than the reality. I do have a suspicion that they have probably not dated well.

I've scanned in his letters and I include them below as image files. In some ways the advice is standard advice to a writer - write about what you know - but it is an interesting curio (although I cringe slightly to wonder what my naive, youthful letter to him might have been like).

I'm pleased to note that my time spent in reading copious crime novels has not been in vain - it has allowed me to deduce that both letters, although 2 years apart, were typed on the same typewriter (the capital S is slightly out of alignment). I had forgotten that I had two letters from him. I can only deduce, to my shame as a person and as a writer, that my second letter to him was a thank you letter 2 years late. Although shamefully late, I'm glad that I did write that thank you letter before he died a couple of years later. I also deduce from the fact that, as an old man, he took time out to write a couple of letters to a teenage aspiring writer who couldn't even get around to writing a thank you letter, that he was probably a kind and generous man.


  1. I am always impressed by writers who take time like that for people, especially - as in your case at the time - young people.

    Although the advice of writing what you know always makes me wonder how many great novels (or even ordinary novels) would not exist if the author had followed this advice.

    I feel ashamed to ask this, I feel I ought to know - do you still write?

  2. I think maybe in the context of him being a crime writer write about what you know can be good advice, especially to a teenager with limited knowledge of the world - it would have been a huge mistake for me to have tried to write a police procedural or forensic novel. Although that's what research is for.

    I haven't written fiction for a quite a long time. This blog was my attempt to try to get back into the habit of writing and get used to being read (which can equally be fulfilling or embarrassing). I do have an idea to try to get back into writing fiction, but it isn't getting very far as yet.