Posts Tagged ‘Julian Symons’

With thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

The progress of a Crime with its vibrant cover showing a bonfire against a pitch black background, seemed like it would be a perfect easy read in the run up to fireworks night. I tend to find I can hear fireworks where I live for most of the winter – and they have been particularly noisy the last few days – I suppose its one thing people can still do.

Julian Symons was a new name to me – yet he was an enormously prolific writer. As well as many crime fiction novels and a great many short stories Symons wrote books of political and military history, biography and poetry. This novel from 1960 won the Edgar award for best novel in 1960.  If I am being totally honest, I was expecting more of a mystery than I got with this novel. There is plenty to appreciate in the novel – but little for the armchair detective to get stuck into.  

The first thing fans of golden age/vintage crime etc should be aware of is that this is not really a mystery novel in the usual sense. Actually the title is in itself a big clue to the kind of story we get here – at first I had thought it might be a police procedural and it is up to a point – however this isn’t a mystery where someone must discover the culprit of a crime. Instead this is much more a novel that shows how the police bring their suspects to book and prepare for the court case. One of the things I liked the most, was what a strong sense of period there is throughout the book – from the treatment of suspects by the police – to the working class home of one particular character – it has a strong early 60s vibe. I couldn’t help but think what a good dramatisation it would make – most of what little tension there is comes from the people and their relationships rather than from the crime.

Symons also shows us how the crime is seen from the perspective of a group of journalists – a couple of local reporters and a London journalist who arrives to cover the case. This is an unusual angle, showing how involved the London press could get with a case – going as far as paying legal costs in return for interviews and photographs that would grace the pages of the paper for several days after the case is finished.

On bonfire night there is a fatal stabbing on the village green in the village of Far Wether – local reporter Hugh Bennett had driven the twelve miles from the (unnamed) city to find out about the village tradition of burning an effigy of the local squire – instead of Guy Fawkes – which has been going on for generations. While talking to the locals he hears about some trouble with a group of city Teddy Boys the previous week – and how they were sent off with a flee in the ear. Notes made – Hugh decides to stay and watch the spectacle for himself.  Things begin as they are meant to – the locals standing around watching – but soon the sound of motorcycles can be heard in the distance.

The group of teenage boys arrive – it’s dark and the air is full of bonfire smoke – it becomes difficult to be certain what exactly happened. A child is knocked to the ground, someone is heard calling ‘get him King’ a man is stabbed – but which one of the gang did the deed?

“There followed a cry, a long wailing animal cry. Dark figures ran over the green. There was the sound of motorcycles starting up and roaring away down the road. And after that, in spite of the fire’s crackle and the spit and bang of fireworks, there was what to Hugh Bennett, seemed very much like silence.”

Superintendent Langton is a stolid, cautious kind of man, who unfortunately does not have the full confidence of his Chief Constable – so the chief calls in Detective Superintendent Twicker from Scotland Yard to work with him on the Bonfire night stabbing. Langton has already identified the boys on the motorcycles – knows where they all work together – now they need to bring them in – separate them and try and break the story they will have cooked up between them. There is something of a cloud over Twicker too – something which went wrong a few years earlier – he’s a man who needs to prove himself. With Twicker comes Detective Sergeant Norman, a younger ambitious man. It becomes fairly obvious early on – which of the boys is likely to be the real culprit – and soon the police have two suspects who they are able to charge with the crime and bring to trial. The police’s methods of questioning a long way from what would be appropriate today – although possibly in real life they may have been even worse.

“This also was routine, something that had been done and said ten thousand times in a hundred police stations, and Twicker, as he looked at Norman’s fleshy face set in its mask of good humour, and at Garney’s, in which fear was beginning to replace arrogance, felt nothing at all. Lies and tricks, threats and promises, these were the methods that brought results.”

Hugh Bennett becomes drawn into the case in his role as a local reporter – although he is also a witness – which his horrible boss at the paper is rather glad about. The story gets sent out to the London papers – and soon enough a London reporter is working alongside Hugh. They set their sights on the family of one of the suspects – a family living in Peter Street – the name adopted by the gang. The sister is Jill – a young primary school teacher – who Hugh is clearly drawn to – and their father a local councillor and long time member of the Labour movement. The London paper offer to pay the legal costs in return for a series of interviews and photographs. It’s an offer that goes against everything the boy’s father believes in – but he needs to help his son.

As I said, there is little work for the armchair detective to do – but in the atmosphere of the early 1960s the conflict between different generations and its portrayal of police methods The Progress of a Crime paints a vivid picture.

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