The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons

Bleak realism…

😀 😀 😀

Hugh Bennett is a young reporter, working on a provincial newspaper covering all the small-town stories. On Guy Fawkes night, he is sent to cover the annual bonfire in the village of Far Wether. But there’s been trouble in Far Wether recently, when a gang of youths caused a disturbance at a local dance and were roughly ejected by a local resident, James Corby. During the bonfire the youths return and, in the darkness, Corby is killed. There are plenty of witnesses, but none who can swear to having seen the actual stabbing. The police have to make sense of the conflicting reports, but eventually, after interviewing the members of the gang intensively, they build up a case against “King” Garney, the leader of the gang, and his faithful follower, Leslie Gardner. The evidence, especially in the case of Gardner, is pretty circumstantial, and one of the big national newspapers decides to pay for his defence…

This is well written and very believable, with a good deal to say about the alienation of youth and the psychology of young men who get caught up in gangs. Hugh knows Leslie’s sister, Jill, and is in the process of falling in love with her, so he finds himself becoming personally as well as professionally involved in the case and, having been at the bonfire, he is also a witness. Symons gives what feels like an authentic portrayal of the life of a reporter on a local paper, covering relatively trivial stories and dreaming of making the big-time on one of the national newspapers. Hugh finds himself working with Frank Fairfield, a major crime reporter from one of those nationals, a man with a reputation for good investigative journalism, but who has an obvious drink problem.

Unfortunately, this one didn’t really work for me. The sordid type of crime and the array of unlikeable characters meant that I didn’t much care whether Gardner was guilty or innocent. First published in 1960, Symons concentrates on gritty realism and social issues, at the expense, in my opinion, of mystery and entertainment. The introduction by Martin Edwards tells us that Symons was inspired by a real crime and I rarely find real crime as enjoyable as imagined crime. However that’s a subjective opinion – many other readers will probably appreciate the emphasis on realism. The moral, upstanding Golden Age policeman has given way to the bullying, violent type who always leave me wondering whether they’re actually any better than the criminals. It may be a more accurate portrayal of the policing of that era, but again it meant I couldn’t find myself fully on the side of “law and order”.

Julian Symons

The latter part of the book covers the trial of the two youths, and this is the best part, with all the traditional surprises being sprung by the defence barrister, while the equally competent prosecutor smoothly responds. Gardner’s family is well developed too, so that we see the tensions among them even before the trial, with young Leslie and his father at loggerheads and Jill, the daughter of the family, trying to mediate. But again I found them all unpleasant people to spend time with, even Jill, whom I suspect we were supposed to like. For Hugh, it’s a bit of a coming-of-age story, as his youthful idealism about journalism takes some serious knocks as he sees the lack of compassion the top reporters have for those caught up in their stories.

So I appreciated the feeling of authenticity Symons manages to create, and am sure this will appeal to people who like their crime fiction to have an air of realism. But for me it was too bleak a read, lacking any elements of warmth or humour to lift the tone.

The book also includes a short story, The Tigers of Subtopia, again about disaffected youth and the reaction of a man who usually thinks of himself as liberal when he feels his own family under threat. I felt much the same about this as about the novel – very well done, authentic and realistic, but too bleak for me.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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27 thoughts on “The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons

  1. Hmm….I do like the Symons I’ve read, FictionFan (‘though I’ve not read this one). And I do like a story to be close enough to reality to be believable. Still, I know what you mean about sordid realism, and I’m not sure I’m interested in that right now. Perhaps it’s the pandemic playing havoc with my reading taste, but right now, sordid has to be very, very good indeed to keep my interest. Hmm….. I may try this at some other time. Your review, though, is excellent as ever.

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    • Thank you! I’ve read a couple of his other books and enjoyed them a lot, so it was really just the bleakness of this one that meant it didn’t work for me – I’m still a fan of his writing and look forward to reading more of his stuff. Being on the cusp of Golden Age and modern crime, it seems to me he was maybe experimenting with different styles and I imagine must have been quite influential at the time.

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  2. It’s a shame you did not enjoy the book more. I think this can happen if you are not keen on the characters. Also, the fact that the crime was real is possible to make it more unpleasant, as it happens in the movies, where we can see all sorts of things without being as affected as when we know that what happened was real.

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    • Yes, although I love crime fiction I really read it for escapism, so if it veers too much towards realism it often becomes too bleak for me. But it’s just personal taste – he’s a very good writer and I’ve enjoyed some of his other books before. Hopefully I’ll enjoy others in the future!

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    • Yes, I always need at least one person to care about, and I think that’s part of what the Golden Age authors did so well. This felt much more modern and the ’60s were pretty bleak – at least until The Beatles came along… 😉

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    • I’m sure plenty of people will love this – he’s a good writer and I’ve enjoyed a couple of his other books before – but I’m never a fan of this very bleak style of crime fiction. More escapism, that’s what we need! 😀

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  3. No wonder you’ve been AWOL here of late, FF. With things like this staring down from your TBR, I can see where having to wade through them and then write a review might bring out the blahs! Best to dash them out the window before the snows fall and find something more entertaining to curl up with.

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    • Hahaha, happily most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading isn’t as bleak as this one, but when you settle down for a bit of escapism and then the book depresses you, it’s not good! 😉 I’m becoming an expert at abandoning books, though… 😀

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  4. I tend to find imagined crimes more enjoyable than real ones too and books with a lot of unpleasant characters can often be a problem for me. I haven’t read anything by Julian Symons yet, but if I do I won’t start with this one!

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    • Yes, I really read crime fiction for escapism so I prefer them to be less realistic than this. Give me a country house and a party of rich people and a victim I can hate… 😉 I’ve read a couple of Symons’ other books and thoroughly enjoyed them, though, so he’s well worth seeking out.

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  5. You’re right–fiction about crime should give the reader someone to root for and a bit of warmth along with gritty realism. Books with unlikable characters are a challenge to read. At the same time, I’m thinking of P.D. James’s books, which feature many thoroughly unpleasant characters. The detectives, Adam Dalgliesh in particular, make up for them to some extent. I reread those books now and then, specifically because I relish the bleakness. Strange…

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    • I think that’s why I like crime novels that have a recurring detective, police or amateur, since even if everyone involved in the crime is unpleasant, you can still develop a relationship with the ‘tec. But this kind of novel where you’re sort of thrust in among the characters can be very depressing if there’s no one to care about. I do think we were supposed to like Jill, but sadly I didn’t. I used to love PD James but I’ve struggled a bit when I’ve tried re-reading them more recently. I suspect I find it harder to believe in an aristocratic poetry-writing detective than I used to… 😉

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    • Yes, I’ve read a couple of his other books and thoroughly enjoyed them, so I’m still a fan despite this miss-hit. I definitely need at least one person to care about though, or it all just becomes too depressing…

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    • No, not at the time, but I’ve noticed that both the BL and the Collins Crime Club are doing it with these reissues. I’m guessing it’s because Golden Age books were much shorter than contemporary crime novels, so maybe they’re afraid readers will feel they’ve been short changed. It seems to me the BL does it any time the main book comes in at less than 250 pages.

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