Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Tigers of Subtopia and Other StoriesThe Tigers of Subtopia and Other Stories by Julian Symons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I am a boiler. A boiler is a mean little sneak. A boiler's nose is full of snot. He can't tie his own shoelaces. A boiler fails in everything he tries. A boiler stinks. I am a boiler..."

The Tigers of Subtopia and Other Stories is a collection of short works by Julian Symons from the period between 1965 and 1982. Symons, one of the most prominent British crime writers of the second half of the 20th century, was a "serious" author too, but obviously his works in literary criticism, history, and poetry are not what he is known for. All eleven stories in this collection are interesting and compulsively readable, but the readers who are looking for straight mystery/crime stuff may be disappointed, except for the last four items. In fact, several stories have no significant "crime component", and they are the better for that.

My favorites are four stories remarkable for their dark mood, seriously disturbing overtones, and subtle intimations of bad things about to happen. The title story, about supposedly peaceful suburban ("subtopian") life, is perhaps the most powerful. It is a cynical, bitter, slightly exaggerated yet still psychologically plausible tale of crime and incommensurate punishment, where the "bad guys" become victims of the "good guys", who become criminals. The story might as well be titled "Lynching in Subtopia". Somebody Else, which refers to the tale of Pelleas and Melisande, is equally unsettling and contains a wonderful passage that describes an anonymous, ambiguous, and vaguely sexual activity. The Boiler is an outright nasty story, strong and psychologically convincing, one that leaves the reader with bitter sadness about the human species. The Murderer - equally dark in its tone as the title story - shows how the entire structure of human personality can be irrevocably destroyed in a single moment.

The remaining stories are more straightforward representatives of the crime/mystery genre: some deal with the so-called perfect crime, others dazzle the reader with extreme and totally unexpected twists and turns of plot. Thus I have not found them very interesting, perhaps except for A Theme for Hyacinth about the oh-so-common delusion of a 50-year-old man who thinks that a young woman is having a torrid affair with him because she finds him interesting. The man's awakening from his fantasy is portrayed with painful bluntness, and the quote from Wallace Stevens's poem Le Monocle de mon Oncle is an added bonus.

The stories are clearly better than run-of-the-mill mystery/crime fiction: the nastiness of ordinary people is shown with some depth.

Three stars.

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