The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons – a British Library Crime Classic Fireworks Night Mystery

The Progress of a Crime: A Fireworks Night Mystery by Julian Symons

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!

The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons – A court drama from the British Library Crime Classic series

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This book is another British Library Crime Classic reprint of a mystery unjustly neglected since its original publication in 1957. Like Symons other reprinted novel, “The Belting Inheritance”, it features an unreliable narrator whose evident confusion seems to be from a far more sinister motive than youth and naivety. It is a remarkable book, partly from its first section which is a first person profile of a character which may or may not explain the tragic events of the novel, and partly from its forensic narration of a court case in all its detail. This is not simply the story of a murder; it is far more about the characters involved before and after when a detailed examination of the case is shown. As Martin Edwards describes in his fine introduction, Symons also gives us plenty of social history in this volume, as the aspiring postwar generation join tennis clubs, host television parties and reveal their real motivations. I was really grateful to receive an advanced copy of this book.

John Wilkins is an unhappy young man. He reveals this in the first part of this book, which is in the form of an extended statement to a psychiatrist. After his father’s business failure and secret affairs are revealed to John, his mother is forced to take a smaller house in a less desirable location. However, John’s former address has been enough to attract the interest of May, who persuades him into a loveless marriage. Her social aspirations come to dominate their lives, and her intense dislike of John’s mother regularly surfaces. John is in a miserable job, with a boss who seems eager to pick up any mistakes, and who is unwilling to give John any credit.  John becomes somewhat unstable, enduring blackouts whenever he drinks, and developing an obsession with a young woman, Sheila. As he fantasises about their relationship, he begins to lose his grip on events even when they favour him. The confusion increases with John seemingly unable to understand or explain what is truly going on, as he misreads situations on a daily basis. A tragic discovery propels everyone connected with him however tenuously into the spotlight of a trial, where the expert work of lawyers is contrasted with those who claim to have knowledge of the events leading up to and during one tragic night.

This is such a clever book in its establishment of a character and those around him being pitched into a complex situation. Symons manages to get so much contrast between the characters, especially the women, that it shows that this is a new type of Murder Mystery in which the characters drive the plot, in contrast with the rather more stock characters of the interwar novels (with some honourable exceptions, obviously). I enjoyed the way in which it keeps the reader guessing, with every character seemingly having mixed motives and behaving in such realistic ways, from the small details of their speech to their larger choices in life. I recommend this book not as a great dramatic murder mystery, but as a carefully wrought observation of life and times, a powerful picture of a man on the edge.

A quick check shows that October’s British Library Crime Classic book looks forward to Christmas! Meanwhile we are still enjoying late summer/ early autumn hereabouts. The darker evenings are a good time to read though! We are having our big book sale in the church hall soon, hundreds of books at a ridiculously cheap prices. This time it is in aid of Book Aid, which buys new books for those who cannot afford them in various countries. I am no expert on the charity, but it seems a good idea to buy medical books, school textbooks and other vital books that do not need electricity or technology to read. I can see I’m going to have to do some more research on this…

The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons – An irregular classic from the British Library Crime Classic’s series

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This British Library Crime Classic shares some of the rules of the Golden Age Mystery fiction in that it is largely set in a large family house, with unlikable characters at every turn. Unlike most of these reprints, however, the murder does not take place until quite a way through this novel, originally published in 1964. There is no shortage of mystery, however, as the unreliable narrator alternates between telling his own story and describing what happens around him. This book is atmospheric, full of a sense of postwar realism, and very funny. As Martin Edwards points out in his Introduction, this book combines the traditional murder mystery including thoughtful policeman in attendance, with the first stirrings of the more modern novel.  I was very pleased to receive this book from the British Library.

Christopher Barrington was left orphaned as a boy, but was adopted by the imperious Lady Wainwright, matriarch of the Belting establishment, a quirky old house with many dark corners. Lady Wainwright has two of her sons living with her, Stephen, the establishment  figure full of tedious announcements, together with his dog obsessed wife Clarissa, and Miles. Miles is a terrific character, single with a mysterious past, full of puns and witticisms and genuine concern for Christopher. “Lady W” as Christopher refers to her, is a grieving mother, saddened by the loss of her sons Hugh and David in the recent Second World War. For this is a book where not all the men disappeared, but several did not return, and the otherwise fierce old lady is deeply traumatised by her losses. Not that this is a gloomy book;  the murder when it comes proves less mysterious than the returned claimant to the family fortune, as a man turns up stating that he is David, shot down in a plane and a survivor of  a Russian prison camp. The eighteen year old Christopher is torn as he observes the now very ill Lady Wainwright overjoyed by her favourite son’s apparent return, and the determination of her sons to prove that David is an imposter. The mood changes dramatically as Christopher discovers bohemian life and alcohol, and that there are many surprises to come.

This is a most enjoyable book, despite the narrator’s divided loyalties and his frequent distractions as he feels compelled to follow the commands of his distant relatives. He is an unreliable narrator because he observes so much, and digresses so frequently, as he tries to find out what is really going on. He is definitely the most attractive character in a family of difficult people. The murder is not as tragic, when it happens, as the sad decline of his benefactor and generally this is the story of an entire way of life in decline. Symons was apparently a prolific author whose writing earned him much contemporary praise. I found this book a satisfying read, even if it did break rules and go via some interesting points. It is a definite find for the British Library series, and I look forward to discovering more titles from this author.

This book will not officially be published until Monday, but I thought I would pop my review on this blog earlier to whet your appetite!  Meanwhile a quick  visit to Derby intu centre and Waterstones meant I got my hands on some brilliant new books. Watch this space for more details. I have had a good week for picking up interesting books generally, as happily the High Peak Book shop was conveniently open on the way home from Manchester, and I found some good things to buy. Well worth a detour if you are in the area, as it has a Northernvicar creche (otherwise known as a cafe with sofas) and is dog friendly.