The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons – Review

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By Sarah Morgan

The crime genre can be a strange place at times. While some writers of seemingly middling talent remain famous long after their death, others with more skill and ingenuity disappear from view, condemned to an afterlife of neglect.

Thankfully the excellent British Library Crime Classics range is doing sterling work in resurrecting the latter’s reputations.

Among those receiving a boost is Julian Symons, who certainly deserves a reappraisal. He was a curious character in his own right, having left school at 14, but later founding a poetry magazine before turning to prose. His attempt to register as a conscientious objector during the Second World War was turned down; he served with the Royal Armoured Corps for two years before being invalided out.

The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons book Review coverOnce the conflict ended, Symons built a successful career as a crime writer, winning numerous awards and serving as the president of the Detection Club from 1976 until 1985. He also published a book about the genre, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, in 1972. So, like Martin Edwards, who edits/curates the British Library’s collection, he not only penned intriguing fiction, he knew more about the subject’s history than most too.

“Labour of love”

The Progress of a Crime was first published in 1960 and won a coveted Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America. There are times when it seems a little long-winded, but on the whole, it’s an impressive tale and perhaps even a labour of love for its author – at the centre of the plot is a reporter from a regional newspaper, and Symons spent time working in the office of one such publication as part of his research.

Young journalist Hugh Bennett happens to be on the spot when, during a village’s traditional November 5th celebrations, a local man is stabbed to death. It’s clear members of a gang of youths are responsible, but discovering which ones proves difficult. Even after the trial, there’s time for a further twist in the tale – as well as a perhaps unexpected touch of romance.

The novel reminded me a little of the film The Boys, which was released two years later and also focuses on a lads’ night out that goes horribly wrong, resulting in a man’s death and the group’s subsequent trial. Whether screenplay writer Stuart Douglass was aware of the book is unknown, but they make intriguing companion pieces.

Also included in the volume is short story ‘The Tigers of Subtopia’. Both it and The Progress of a Crime are decent examples of Symons’ work. Here’s hoping the British Library brings out more soon.

‘The Progress of a Crime: A Fireworks Night Mystery’ by Julian Symons is published by the British Library,
£8.99 paperback


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