Friday 23 March 2018

Forgotten Book - The Progress of a Crime

One of the first contemporary crime novels I read - in fact, I think it may have been the very first after my early diet of Christie and Sayers - was Julian Symons' The Progress of a Crime. It was first published in 1960 and I read it about ten years later. I remember borrowing it from a friend of my father's, having spotted it on his bookshelves. It's a drab title, and a bleak book, but it won an Edgar, and it's widely regarded as one of Symons' best books. I was probably too young for it at the age of 13 or 14, but I liked it, and I enjoyed it all over again when I reread it recently.

The setting is a provincial newspaper, and the protagonist is a young and rather naive reporter called Hugh. By accident, he gets mixed up in a murder case on Guy Fawkes night. But this isn't a classic whodunit. There's no doubt that a man called Corby has been killed by one or more members of a gang of youths. The interest of the story lies in Symons' merciless portrayal of damaged lives - the gang members, the failed journalists, the bullying policemen - and of the shortcomings of the justice system.

There is a very good extended trial scene. Symons had a real gift for courtroom drama, and he was advised by his friend, the author Michael Underwood, on legal procedure, so there is an authentic feeling to this section of the book, which was written long before the controversial development of the "joint enterprise" principle in gang cases. Symons also spent some time in a Bristol newspaper office, so as to capture the whiff of life among the reporters; this too is very well done.

With hindsight, reading this book was an important milestone for me, the beginning of a transition as a youthful reader from the classic world of Poirot, Marple, and Wimsey to modern realism: this is certainly Symons' grittiest book. What I've learned since then, is that both types of novel, as well as other types, have the potential to be highly entertaining. The key question is: how well has the writer told the story? Here, in crisp, sardonic prose, Symons tells a dark and often depressing story very well.

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