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.

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 260…

Episode 260

Oh, dear! Back in lockdown, back in reading slump! I’ve only finished one book in the whole of October so far – this is becoming critical! It’s extremely hard to keep a book blog running if you can’t be bothered to read books or write reviews, I’ve discovered. I may have to come up with something creative – a cake-tasting blog, perhaps? All this is my excuse for why the TBR has crept back up by two to 199. Still below the magical 200, though…

Here are a few more that will be sliding off soon…

Horror

Weird Woods edited by John Miller

Courtesy of the British Library. Another themed anthology of vintage horror stories from the BL’s Tales of the Weird series – it makes the porpy and me so happy that they’re doing the same for vintage horror as they’ve done for vintage crime!

The Blurb says: Woods play an important and recurring role in horror, fantasy, the gothic and the weird. They are places in which strange things happen, where you often can’t see where you are or what is around you. Supernatural creatures thrive in the thickets. Trees reach into underworlds of earth, myth and magic. Forests are full of ghosts.

In this new collection, immerse yourself in the whispering voices between the branches in Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, witness an inexplicable death in Yorkshire’s Strid Wood and prepare yourself for an encounter with malignant pagan powers in the dark of the New Forest. This edition also includes notes on the real locations and folklore which inspired these deliciously sinister stories.

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American Classic

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. I’m sure there was a creaky old black and white TV adaptation of this when I was a kid, but apart from the character names I remember nothing else about it. Sounds as if it could be wonderful… or awful! We’ll see…

The Blurb says: The second of Cooper’s five Leatherstocking Tales, this is the one which has consistently captured the imagination of generations since it was first published in 1826. It’s success lies partly in the historical role Cooper gives to his Indian characters, against the grain of accumulated racial hostility, and partly in his evocation of the wild beautiful landscapes of North America which the French and the British fought to control throughout the eighteenth century. At the center of the novel is the celebrated `Massacre’ of British troops and their families by Indian allies of the French at Fort William Henry in 1757. Around this historical event, Cooper built a romantic fiction of captivity, sexuality, and heroism, in which the destiny of the Mohicans Chingachgook and his son Uncas is inseparable from the lives of Alice and Cora Munro and of Hawkeye the frontier scout. The controlled, elaborate writing gives natural pace to the violence of the novel’s action: like the nature whose plundering Copper laments, the books placid surfaces conceal inexplicable and deathly forces.

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Vintage Crime

The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons

Courtesy of the British Library again! I’ve loved the previous books of Julian Symons that they’ve re-published, so have high hopes for this one. The cover’s very different from their usual style, isn’t it? 

The Blurb says: The murder, a brutal stabbing, definitely took place on Guy Fawkes night. It was definitely by the bonfire on the village green. There were definitely a number of witnesses to a row between a group of Teddy Boys. And yet, was it definitely clear to anybody exactly what they had seen?

In the writhing, violent shadows, it seems as if the truth may have gone up in smoke.

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Historical Fiction

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

Since I’m currently listening to Dracula, this seems like the obvious one to choose for my next listen, especially since I’ve seen some great reviews appearing around the blogosphere. It’s narrated by Anna Chancellor, whom I love, and Barry McGovern, whom I don’t know very well but am told is great, so I’m looking forward to filling some of the dark lockdown evenings with this…

The Blurb says: 1878: The Lyceum Theatre, London. Three extraordinary people begin their life together, a life that will be full of drama, transformation, passionate and painful devotion to art and to one another. Henry Irving, the Chief, is the volcanic leading man and impresario; Ellen Terry is the most lauded and desired actress of her generation, outspoken and generous of heart; and ever following along behind them in the shadows is the unremarkable theatre manager, Bram Stoker.

Fresh from life in Dublin as a clerk, Bram may seem the least colourful of the trio but he is wrestling with dark demons in a new city, in a new marriage, and with his own literary aspirations. As he walks the London streets at night, streets haunted by the Ripper and the gossip which swirls around his friend Oscar Wilde, he finds new inspiration. But the Chief is determined that nothing will get in the way of his manager’s devotion to the Lyceum and to himself. And both men are enchanted by the beauty and boldness of the elusive Ellen.

This exceptional novel explores the complexities of love that stands dangerously outside social convention, the restlessness of creativity, and the experiences that led to Dracula, the most iconic supernatural tale of all time.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?