A CRIMINAL COMEDY by Julian Symons (Viking: $14.95; 220 pp.). Derek and Sandy Crowley are a popular couple in the English town of Headfield. Their friends begin receiving letters that accuse Derek of having an affair with Gerda, the Valkyrian wife of Charles Porson, Derek's partner in the PC Travel Agency. Who could be so malicious? Who poisoned the Bloody Mary of Derek's lifelong friend, Jason Durling, and why? Who put a live round in the prop gun used in a local play featuring many of the principals of this puzzle of passions and dark, covert motives?
Julian Symons, long a respected name in mystery circles in England and this country, has forgotten more than many of the younger suspense novelists appear to know about the admirable craft; he has produced a fine and enduring survey of the genre, "Mortal Consequences." But this time Symons has forgotten such fatal things as the need for interesting characters, the need for the characters who are to be killed off to seem alive in the first place, believable dialogue and avoiding cliche. Writing in a prose at best mushy, Symons offers a few surprises and seems to pounce with alacrity on the opportunities to violate point of view and the reader's patience.