Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Progress of a Crime - Julian Symons

This edition of  'The Progress of a Crime' comes with a bonus short story - 'The Tigers of Subtopia' which I read before the main feature. It's a dark and disturbing thing which provides an excellent set up for 'The Progress of a Crime'. the 'The Tigers of Subtopia' written in 1965 has nothing to do with the swinging 60s, and everything to do with the tension between an older generation that spent their youth at war, and the one that follows. Here the teenagers might be mouthy, but the real threat comes from somewhere else.

'The Progress of a Crime', subtitled A Fireworks Night Mystery is excellent. Loosely based on a real case, it was written in 1960, is set in an unnamed city that could be anywhere from the Midlands downwards - the case Symons had in mind happened in Clapham, but reading this made me think of Leicester, or Northampton. Midlands set books are rare so although I suspect the geography is more southern, I really like that it might not be.

A young journalist from a local newspaper is sent out to cover a bonfire night story where the Guy is in the shape of a much hated old village squire. It's all very quaint until a bunch of Teddy boys turn up on bikes, start throwing fireworks at the current squire, who then ends up stabbed.

Scotland Yard is quickly called in, the gang of boys identified, and one of them also murdered, presumably to keep him quiet. We then follow the police investigation, the journalists investigation, the family of one of the accused boys, the trial, and it's immediate aftermath.

There's a lot going on here, and it's all compelling. Symons is detached from the crime, our main point of view is courtesy of Hugh Bennett, the young journalist, how he grows up through the course of the investigation and trial is the main arc of the book. The crime itself is the sort of senseless thing that unfortunately still happens far to easily - a moment of violence that ripples out to touch other people.

The police are not heroic in this either. There's no bones made about how brutal the process of getting a confession is - which has to make the reader wonder what those confessions are worth. Maybe even more so for the modern reader, because throughout there's a sense of the disruptive effect of the war in the background for the older generation fragmenting and upsetting family values. 'The Tigers of Subtopia' is more explicit about the dangers of that suppressed capacity for violence, but overall I think there's a sense of values and expectations changing.

I knew that Teddy Boys had a reputation for violence, but as it's a look I mostly associated with Hi-de-Hi (prime time 1980's comedy) I hadn't really considered what that really meant. This book has changed that early perception. It's still the progress of what happens after the crime that makes it so compelling though. How newspapers work in their handling of a story, the effect on the family of one of the boys charged with the crimes, how the police investigate and the repercussions from that.

There's nothing particularly explicit in this book, none of the graphic brutality that stop me reading a lot of modern crime, and it goes light on the psychology, but it's not a cosy slice of vintage nostalgia either which more or less makes it my ideal. It was a significant success when it came out, and it's aged well since. Highly recommended. 

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