Friday, May 28, 2021

FFB: The Man Whose Dreams Came True - Julian Symons

Confession #87: I am not a fan of Julian Symons. Years ago when I was a teenager my treasured copy of Murder Ink introduced me to hundreds of mystery writers I was eager to sample. In that seminal anthology and history of crime fiction I learned of Julian Symons’ unique suspense novel The 31st of February. This was the first Symons “mystery” I read and only because of Dilys Winn’s rave calling it one of the best books with an unforgettable surprise ending. Well, it bored me more than my algebra class. I was only 15 so maybe the gravitas of a man being mentally tortured and hounded by someone who knows he killed his wife was beyond my experience. But shouldn’t the telling at least engage any reader? I’ve also read The Three Pipe Problem (too arch in its humor for my teenage mind), The Kentish Manor Murders (sequel to the previous book, snobby and pompous and tiresome), and The Blackheath Poisonings of which I remember nothing. I’ve tried a handful of others over the past couple of years and never finished them. Why on earth then did I specifically reserve two little read Julian Symons books from the Chicago Public Library?

Confession #88: it was for a silly idea I had. Review a slew of books with titles that begin The Man Who… Symons wrote three of them, one right after the other back in the 1960s. I read one excellent book by Dolores Hitchens (The Man Who Cried All the Way Home) and posted that a few days ago. Now here’s the second in my series of “Man Who…” reviews. And was I ever surprised! This book may single-handedly have changed my mind about Julian Symons.

The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968) is an inverted detective novel with an anti-hero in the Patricia Highsmith mode. We know from the very first chapter that Anthony Scott-Williams is a cad. He dreams of a life in Venice, Italy while working as a researcher and secretary for an old General who is compiling a memoir that grows ever longer and may probably never see publication. Tony has several different identities. He willfully steals from his employer to supplement his gambling addiction, manipulates his friends and associates, lies and cheats to get what he wants and does it all with good humor and charm. Tony is bound to get mixed up with the wrong people as he continues to exploit the women and men he meets in his life of leisure. His girlfriend turns out to be a con artist but does he learn his lesson with her? No, he tries again with an older woman and his life turns upside down.

At first there is admiration for Tony’s hutzpah and a longing to see him taken down a notch. We briefly watch Tony in action trying to exploit a young woman he thinks is a rich heiress but when it all backfires he is more than a little angry. But when he next plies his charm on another wealthy woman, Genevieve Foster, he surprises himself by falling in love with her. Mrs. Foster has a plan, however, that includes a crime Tony has never dreamed of committing. This time he thinks his life will finally change for the better and he’s willing to anything for Jenny -- including murder her husband.

Like his own creation Symons seems to be playing the reader and exploiting his emotions with twists and layers of irony. First the novelist presents us with a likeable cad, then reveals him as a foolish and rash young man with an anger problem, and then ultimately as a victim of someone much more malicious and self-serving than himself. The shifts are all done with astonishing skill.

The one aspect that is unsurprising is that Tony has had a rather miserable life. We learn about his drunken father who beat him as a child, his ineffectual mother whose love was not enough to protect him from abuse, and his eventual descent into a life of crime. Free from maudlin sentimentality this history is told as cold and distant as an idealistically unbiased journalist. And yet the narrative elicits an affinity for the young man and a hope for a better future. The reader may join Tony in desiring a happily ever after ending no matter what he has to do in order to achieve his dreams.

When the tables are turned and Tony becomes a victim of an obvious frame-up, carried out in a heartlessly malicious manner, it only strengthens the reader’s desire for positive change in Tony’s life. He finds himself on trial for the murder of a man he never met. No amount of explaining to either the police or his wise team of public defender lawyers can muster much sympathy, even when he is forced to confess that he was conspiring to kill someone entirely different than the person he is charged with murdering! All the while the reader knows Tony is telling the truth and is eager for his lawyers to find the evidence that will prove Tony’s innocence. We find ourself rooting for this thoroughly unscrupulous and selfish man who was going to kill but never fulfilled his plans.

A bit past the halfway mark a private detective enters the story. He has been hired by a mysterious benefactor who has Tony’s best interests at heart. Dimmock works for Second to None Agency has been put on this case because the owner Clarence Newhouse trusts his most reliable and senior agent to do the kind of determined work he well known for. While other agents at Second to None may be fiddling with expense accounts and wasting time in pubs drinking away last week’s paycheck Dimmock is always on the case. As Symons describes him: “If Dimmock was asked to find a missing woman last seen in Birmingham he would go on doggedly looking until he found her or was called off the trail.”

The scenes with Dimmock are filled with a humanity and quiet dignity. The man is suffering from a cold while performing his job, the result of spending too much time chasing after witnesses during wet and rainy weather while dressed inappropriately. Sneezing and wiping his nose at nearly every home he visits Dimmock displays a skill in saying the right things to ward off anger and bring out the best in the witnesses who were guarded when questioned by police. With a down-to earth nature, an unapologetic manner, and despite his aggravating cold, Dimmock gets the various people on the list of witnesses for the prosecution to admit to facts that the police were not offered. He turns up crucial observations and perceptions that led him to finding damning physical evidence of Mrs. Foster’s guilt. Dimmock is the real hero of the novel and was my favorite character.

In the end for all its humanity, for all the shifts in sympathy we have for Tony, and even with the surprise of a nifty detective novel in miniature in the chapters that feature Dimmock The Man Whose Dreams Came True proves to be a darkly ironic piece of noir fiction. Can there really be a happily-ever-after for Tony? With a vicious attack on his character, with his ultimate admission of plotting to kill someone completely different than the victim of the murder trial, with that brazen and brave confession as his only defense can Tony receive redemption? He should be on the road to reform and ought to be rewarded with something other than the much desired acquittal. Perhaps a cruel Fate will intrude as happened when he met Mrs. Foster. The fourth section of the novel is titled “How the Dreams Came True” and in it Symons delivers a nasty punch to the gut. Despite all his dreams, despite all his good fortune after the trial, we get a finale that perhaps was the only possible ending for Tony.

QUOTES: “Tony understood that if there had been no threats it was a good thing for him, it meant that he had no reason to worry about the money. This meant also that it didn’t always pay to bring out the truth. Would it be right to say that truth was one thing and justice another?”

“Newton’s hand fell like an accolade on Dimmock’s shoulder as he said that they would need him also in court. That was an exciting prospect, but Dimmock afterward thought of the hour he had spent in those chambers, rather than the session in court, as the crowning point of his career. He had the prescription made up. And although it had no effect upon his cold he treasured the piece of paper to the end of his life.”


  1. I tried reading this one a couple of years ago and I have to admit that I had to give up by the 100 page mark. I guess the protagonist had the type of unpleasant personality that I couldn't find interesting or engaging.
    I didn't realise you were doing a The Man Who series. That sounds interesting. Will you be doing Margot Bennett's The Man Who Didn't Fly, Bernice Carey's The Man Who Got Away with It or The Man Who Was Not There by ELW? You might have already reviewed these books. I am sure you have some ultra obscure ones for us!

    1. Hmm. Clearly I found myself on Tony’s side. Thought the trap he fell into was the work of an evil person. But the ending is truly nasty. I rarely get upset over shocking endings but this book really got to me. Had to mull it over for a while and I decided it was the only way things were headed for Tony.

      Yes, the Bennett review is finally coming (read it back in April) as well as Carey and one more Symons book.

    2. Ah well I never that got that far in the book but I don't know I would have liked a nasty ending either.
      Looking forward to your Bennett and Carey reviews.

  2. I loved this one and 'The Man Who Killed Himself'. But 'The Man Who Lost His Wife' is a definite clunker.

    1. Aha! Then I’m glad I chose The Man Who Killed Himself as the other Symons review in this series.

  3. Interesting observation regarding Symons output. I read the three books re-published by the British Library. While I found the Belting Inheritance thoroughly entertaining, the Progress of a Crime left me cold and I stopped with the Colour of Murder after a third. Symons has a knack for creating really nasty characters, which as a rule I don't mind. I just don't enjoy his. I think I will avoid his output in the future.

    Oh, and btw I want to say thanks at last for your great review of The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius. I was one of those who bought a 1st ed. copy after I read your review. A great book with a really striking dj.

    1. Color of Murder was one that bored me and I stopped after only two chapters. I share your views about the nasty characters. Often they are surreally nasty and non-human to me. Mrs Foster us a perfect example of that. So self-serving and emotionless it’s beyond sociopathy.

      George Limbelius’ book is one of many on my long list of books that I think deserve reprinting more than many other writers whose work is flooding the marketplace. So many Queen and Van Dine editions! Really? and all those middling Lorac and Rinehart books. Spare me.

    2. I wonder if this is a result of lazyness on the part of publishing firms or that the copyrights are so uncertain that nobody bothers or wants to take the risks about more obscure writers.