Smile and Murder (1954) by Francis Symonds

First of all thanks to Xavier, for not only recommending this book, but also finding me a dust jacket image for the title, as google images was not very forthcoming. I would class today’s read as a quasi-inverted mystery, having some elements of this subgenre, but at the same time using them in ways which do not neatly fit into the category. Yet of course it is this playfulness with the genre which made this a very enjoyable read.

Crime writer, Julian Drew narrates the first section of the story. He idly talks with his Aunt Rachel about how easy it would be to kill her, her death not unexpected due to her ill health and a while later she is indeed dead, leaving £500 to Julian and everything else to her niece Clare. Yet it is not her death we are interested in, with our focus being on Clare, her husband Geoffrey and their household, who are now living in Rachel’s home, Overton Lodge. As part of the household we have an old domineering housekeeper, Agnes Keenan, who seems to have it in for both Geoffrey and Julian, as well as a neighbour and newspaper astrologer Claudia Stone, who is forever in and out of the house. This is a far from happy household with Clare and Geoffrey increasingly becoming at logger heads with one another, especially when their affections seem to straying elsewhere. Julian’s narrative unsurprisingly concludes with a death…

Overall Thoughts

I’ve not said too much about the plot, as I think it is one you can easily say too much about. All I will say is that the narrative after Julian’s, is shared by others, all of which bear a different point of view on what is going on. There is a lot to enjoy with this book. Julian who narrates most of the story is very good at his job, beginning with his wonderful opening line: ‘It was as she lay there in her old-fashioned bed, looking so frail and helpless, that I thought how easy it would be to finish off my Aunt Rachel.’ A line which of course makes one think of Richard Hull and the like. Being a crime writer Julian also includes some entertaining metafictional comments, with this one being my favourite as he reminds me of a trope I have seen so many times but never paused to think about:

‘It is, I believe, a tradition with a certain type of detective story that the discovery of the body, if made by a woman, should always be followed up by a wild shriek. Whether this is equally common in real life, I wouldn’t know; it certainly did not occur in the present instance.’

Thinking about my mystery reading in a general sense I have come to conclusion there really is a lot of female shrieking when it comes to finding a body. Something I’ve overlooked but now seems really obvious. Not that I am criticising these female characters per say, as not having found a dead body, thankfully, I can’t say how I would react myself.

Julian though is not the only well-drawn character, as I think Symonds is clever with how he has crafted the rest of his characters. They initially seem to conform to type, yet as the book progresses a more complex picture of them emerges. Clare is very much a case in point. When we first encounter her she is described as doll-like, empty headed and vacuous and her discussion of Julian’s novel fairly supports this impression:

Clare: ‘I saw some perfectly stinking reviews of your novels, and I knew at once that I should simply adore it.’

Julian: ‘And did you?’

Clare: ‘But of course! At least, I shall do as soon as I have read it. Unfortunately, though I made the most definite note to buy the book – what with one thing and another – you know how it is-’

Whilst I wouldn’t say she gets any more intelligent in the book, we do get to see more sides to her, particularly in the makeup of her personality and emotional world. It also helps that Symonds does have a great way with words, as this line for example, about Clare, really stayed with me: ‘she went along the passage, limp and apathetic as a rag doll and dragging her feet like an old woman.’

So all in all a good read. Deceptive narration, unexpected twists and nicely ironic ending that Francis Iles surely would have approved of. What’s not to love?

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Writer

10 comments

  1. I’m glad that you liked this one – I must admit I’m always anxious every time you review one of my favorites, as you are often the only other person in the world to read them! 🙂

    Addington Symonds first came to my attention because of an enthusiastic article by French crime scholar François Rivière in the literary periodical Europe in which he praised the three novels then available in translation (there would sadly be no more) for the way each of them played games with structure and the conventions of the genre, and wondered how they could be so obscure despite their originality. It took me some time as Internet didn’t exist back then and you had to rely on used bookstores and yard sales to find old books, but I finally managed to get hold of all three and while the first, “Stone Dead” was a relative disappointment, the second, “Smile and Murder” was everything as good as Rivière made it to be. I have yet to read the third, “Murder of Me” whose peculiarity is to be told by the victim, hence the title. Addington Symonds’s obscurity may have to do with that of the publishers of his works as he seems never to have made it to major imprints, which is a pity – and since his books are so hard to find, at least in English, I don’t think we can expect a revival any time soon.

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  2. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I don’t usually like inverted mysteries, but this sounds like something I might want to check out. Hopefully it’s available on my local Kindle store…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Forget about kindle edition, you will be lucky if you get a paperback ! It is now virtually extinct. There is absolutely no used copy available for sale. Only a few days back, a copy was available at amazon.com at 49 dollars plus shipping, but even that has been taken !

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    • Yeah I think because it is not a full on inverted mystery there will be enough mystification going on to keep you interested, though it may take you a while to find a copy, looking at Santosh’s comment.

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  3. I’m resurrecting this thread only to let you know that I managed to get hold of a fourth Addington Symonds novel entitled “Death Goes Window Shopping” and dealing with a macabre discovery in a – you guessed it – shop window. I have only sampled it so far but it seems to be relatively more orthodox than the three available in translation. It also appears that FAS wrote at least a fifth book, promisingly titled Portrait of the Accused. Stay tuned for more information as I keep tracking this extremely mysterious writer…

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  4. […] This month’s reads saw me return to some familiar authors including the Black Express (1945) aka Great Black Kanba by Constance and Gwenyth Little, Beginning with a Bash (1937) by Alice Tilton and The Whispering Wall (1969) by Patricia Carlon. I also tried out some authors new to me such as Anthony Boucher, Anna Mary Wells, Margaret Millar, Ursula Curtiss and Francis Symonds. […]

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