The Progress of a Crime – A Fireworks Night Mystery by Julian Symons
This 1960 novel, now reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series, begins with a fireworks night event, but most of the action takes place well after the party. Less a detective mystery than a vivid account of social issues in the late 1950s, this novel accordingly features as its main character Hugh Bennett, a young reporter on a local paper. It has much to say on the subject of gangs of young men who are involved in anti social activities, justice, and the methods employed by certain police officers to obtain a result. The way that newspapers operate is also a strong theme in this book on both a local and national level, and though things have obviously changed since then, the forces of the media on people’s lives is still relevant.
This is a book which is stronger on characters than plot, but the mechanics of detection and seeking evidence is meticulously presented. A trial is also a strong element of the book, and is by no means a forgone conclusion. Based in some senses on a real life crime, Symons changed many details, but takes up several themes of uncertainty and mass action. A confusing episode in the darkness, unreliable or confused witnesses, and several possible culprits make this a distinctive read because of the very way it is written. Hugh is not responsible for solving the crime, yet his interest in the case is pointed out by Martin Edwards as life changing for him in unexpected ways. As always with the reprinted books in this significant series, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
The novel begins with Hugh struggling with the boredom of being a young reporter and spending his days following cases in the magistrates. He longs for a story of more significance, and believes he has found something of interest in a village of Far Weather, where a “group of youths” committed some anti social acts at a dance. Dealt with by a local worthy, James Corby, the young men were heard to utter threats of returning. Hugh guesses that a Guy Fawkes night party may be affected, so takes a trip to the village, discovering some facts in the local pub before joining the villagers in a darkened field, illuminated by a fire and fireworks. When the crime happens it is a confused picture for everyone, even though we see it principally through Hugh’s eyes. The way everything works out means that everyone must consider what they saw and heard, and think about what importance to accord to each. The influence of the investigating police officer, Twicker, is less clear than in many crime novels of the mid twentieth century, and he is perhaps a less significant character than he could be in another novel in this genre.
This edition also includes a short story, “The Tigers of Subtopia”, which is a disturbing look at the predictability of life for men in the suburbs and what happens when it is disturbed. I think that this is the essence of this book; what happens when young men implicitly challenge the status quo, how the establishment deals with it, and the attitudes to young men in a society that is afraid of them. This is less a “whodunit” than a “what happens now book”, how life cannot be the same when the crimes are committed. I found this a fascinating book, very different to many of the books in this series, and perhaps more of a social observation than many of the crime books in this series.
I meant originally to post this review in good time before 5th November, but things have conspired to mean that I have posted it today. The book is far more about the days, weeks and even months following a particular Guy Fawkes night rather than the day itself, so it is going to be of interest even if you cannot get your hands on a copy yet. It is a fascinating read whenever you tackle it!