In The Spotlight: Julian Symons’ A Three-Pipe Problem

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’ve been many, many follow-ons, pastiches, and other homages to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Some of them have worked very well, and others have been less well regarded. Either way, it certainly says something, both for the character and his creator, that the Sherlock Holmes theme is still so popular. Let’s take a look at one such homage today, and turn the spotlight on Julian Symon’s A Three-Pipe Problem. I’d say it’s about time this feature included one of Symon’s works, anyway…

The novel begins (appropriately enough, considering when this is posted) on New Year’s Eve. Charles Pole is murdered by, oddly enough, what looks like strange sort of karate chop. Chief Superintendent Roger Devenish begins to investigate, and right way, runs into problems. First, Pole seems to have had no enemies. So there seems no reason why anyone should want to kill him. Even a careful ‘vetting’ of his widow doesn’t help. Then, there’s another, similar murder. Sir Pountney Gladson, MP, is the victim this time. He’s a more likely candidate to be a victim; even so, there doesn’t seem to be a really likely suspect. Then there’s a third murder: Sonny Halliwell, who runs a pornography bookshop. The victims didn’t know each other, and there doesn’t seem to be a link among them. But Devenish knows there must be something, and digs into the case. One possibility is that there are rival criminal gangs at work, since Halliwell was connected with one of them. But there are other leads, too.

In the meantime, we meet TV actor Sheridan ‘Sher’ Haynes. He’s the star of a popular Sherlock Holmes series, with Basil Wainwright as his Watson. The show’s been slipping in the ratings lately, and there is talk that it may not run for another series. And Haynes has his own problems with the way the show is done. He is a dedicated, thoroughly knowledgeable admirer of Conan Doyle and the Holmes stories, and knows the canon very well. And that’s just the trouble. The show’s creators have made several changes to the characters and stories, and Haynes isn’t happy with anything that takes away from the original stories. In fact, he causes enough problems on the set that he’s warned the show could end very soon if he doesn’t cooperate.

Haynes, like many other people, has read about the murders dubbed ‘The Karate Killings.’ He comes to believe that if he can use Sherlock Holmes’ methods, he can solve the killings. Not only will this bring the murderer to justice; it’ll also prove the worth of Sherlock Holmes, and keep the show running. Since Haynes is a star, the things he says make it into the news, and it’s soon well-known that he intends the solve the crimes.

For his part, Devenish doesn’t like amateurs trying to do a professional’s job. It only makes the work harder. But, he admits that there’s nothing preventing Haynes from trying to find out the truth. And, as time goes on, he also admits that the police would be glad of genuinely helpful information.

Not everyone’s delighted that Haynes is getting involved, though. For one thing, his wife, Val, believes he’s gone round the proverbial bend. And there are some people who think Haynes is getting much closer to the truth than they want. In the end, though, Haynes and Devenish find out who is behind the killings.

This is, as I say, an homage to Sherlock Holmes. It’s not a silly send-up or even a pastiche, really. The story is told in part from Haynes’ perspective (third person, past tense) and in part from Devenish’s. So, we learn quite a bit about both characters. Haynes is deeply devoted to the Holmes stories – even going so far as to live in Baker Street. He wishes he could live in Victorian times; in fact, he has nothing but contempt for cars and other aspects of modern life. And he really does try to use Holmes’ methods, and what he’s gleaned from the Holmes stories, to solve the murders. Despite the concerns raised by a few characters in the novel, he doesn’t believe he’s Sherlock Holmes. Rather, he has a reverence for the character he plays on television. And I can say without spoiling the story that he does use those methods to good effect.

Devenish is a practical, pragmatic copper. He knows that sometimes, you have to make deals with criminals, and work with them in order to catch the worst offenders. For instance, in one plot thread of the novel, he’s trying to prevent a gang war between two groups of criminals. In fact, he thinks one of the murders had something to do with this rivalry. So, he finds a very clever way to get them to declare a cease-fire, if not actually a truce. He’s happily married, and although he enjoys a drink, he doesn’t find solace in the bottom of a bottle. And he and Haynes develop a genuine respect for each other.

The novel is set in 1975 London, and Symons places the reader there distinctly. As the different plot threads play out, we follow Haynes and Devenish around different parts of the city. And we also get a sense of the culture of the times. On the one hand, there’s a lot of open marriage and other sexual experimentation. And there’s open (if not always exactly enlightened) discussion of homosexuality. On the other, there are blatant, very ugly, racist and sexist comments. They reflect the views of the times, but readers who are offended by such remarks will notice them.

The book isn’t meant to be a comic send-up, but there are some witty remarks and funny moments. That said, though, it’s done, if I can put it this way, with great respect for Holmes and Conan Doyle. And readers who dislike a lot of violence will be glad to know that there isn’t a great deal of ‘on stage’ violence in this book.

A Three-Pipe Problem is a quintessentially London murder mystery, with a special devotion to the way Holmes would have gone about solving crimes. It features a sleuth who wants to show just how good a sleuth Holmes really was, and another sleuth who just wants to make the city safe for ‘regular’ people like his family. But what’s your view? Have you read A Three-Pipe Problem? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 9 January/Tuesday, 10 January – Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Monday, 16 January/Tuesday, 17 January – An Easy Thing – Paco Ignacio Taibo II

Monday, 23 January/Tuesday, 24 January – What Remains Behind – Dorothy Fowler


Filed under A Three-Pipe Problem, Julian Symons

26 responses to “In The Spotlight: Julian Symons’ A Three-Pipe Problem

  1. Interesting post, Margot. As a lover of all things Holmes, I like a good pastiche or spinoff, but I’ve been made a bit nervous after reading Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, which I hated very much! But Symons is usually rated quite highly so I may search this one out!

    • I know what you mean, KBR. Some of the pastiches/homages are not done well at all. Others really are. I think what I like about this one is that Haynes doesn’t pretend to be Holmes. What’s more, he’s a really dedicated admirer of both Conan Doyle and Holmes. He’s enough of a purist that you really get a sense that Symons was paying respect. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. Patti Abbott

    He used to be a real favorite but haven’t read him in forty years. Eek!

  3. I’ve not heard of this one Margot, possibly because it was slightly before ‘my time’ but I do like that it gets its inspiration from Sherlock Holmes rather than tries to recreate the stories. I especially, in view of the fact I’m so hooked on the BBC version of Sherlock, delighted that this features a TV programme which results in the amateur and the Police working together. A very finely timed post indeed!

    • You really put that very well, Cleo. This story is far more a case of inspiration from Sherlock Holmes than a re-telling of the story. And it interesting that this novel features a TV version of the stories. It is timely in that sense, too. If you do read this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. Great write-up Margot – I liked this one quite a lot.

  5. mudpuddle

    Symons hasn’t been one of my favorites but i loved this book: excellent plot and development thereof and a subtle analysis of the psychology of the main characters done in a sympathetic manner made the book appealing. i have tried others by Symons but this one has been, so far, the most pleasing…

    • You make some very well-taken points, Mudpuddle. Symons did an especially effective job of building characters and exploring their interactions. As you say, sympathetic, but not sugary-sweet by any means. And, yes, subtle, too.

  6. Great post, Margot. As a fan of Holmes, I’d say this one is definitely going on my TBR list. I especially like that Haynes doesn’t see himself as Holmes. Also wanted to wish you a Happy New Year since I wasn’t online when the New Year came in.

    • Thank you very much, Mason. I wish you all the best for 2017. About the book… yes, that’s something I like, too. Haynes sees himself as using Holmes’ methods, not as Holmes himself. And that makes a big difference, in my opinion. It’s a respectful homage to Holmes.

  7. Margot, it’s interesting to know that this mystery has two protagonists, Haynes and Devenish. I don’t remember reading crime fiction with two lead characters. They almost sound like Holmes and Watson, though that is clearly not the case.

    • Now that’s a very interesting point, Prashant. There are two protagonists here, and we follow each. That happens in some cases, but, as you say, it’s not particularly common. And it’s not easy to pull off well. If you read this one, I hope you’l enjoy it.

  8. I very much enjoy Symons’ book Bloody Murder, as an opinionated and partisan view of GA fiction: it is most entertaining. But I wasn’t such a fan of his crime stories. However this one, which I haven’t read, sounds quite tempting…

    • Symons was fairly prolific, Moira, so I think he’s one of those authors where you might easily like one or another, but not all, of his books. This one, in my opinion, shows the deep respect he had for Conan Doyle and Holmes. I like that about it. And thanks for mentioning Bloody Murder. Now it’s my turn to say it’s one I haven’t read.

  9. I have not read anything by Symon although I have a copy of this one and several other books by him. I will certainly have to try this one.

  10. To what does the title refer? I would think the title would be A Three-Karate Chop Problem 😀

    • The title comes from a line Holmes says in Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League. At one point, Watson asks Holmes what he’s going to do about the case they’re investigating. Holmes says he’s going to smoke, and then says:

      ‘It is quite a three-pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.’

      I have to say, though, that your suggested title is creative, GtL!

  11. It’s on the shelf, but hasn’t risen to near top of TBR, mostly due to other books slipping in ahead of it. I think I’ll move it up.

  12. I read A Three-Pipe Problem decades ago, but after reading your fine review I want to drop everything and read it again! It was one of Julian Symon’s best mysteries.

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