The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons

If I were to pick the top three vintage crimes writers I discovered thanks to British Library Crime Classics, Julian Symons would undoubtedly make that list. I loved The Color of Murder which I read a while back, which is more of commentary on the justice system than a whodunit. Similarly, The Progress of a Crime which was inspired by a true crime in the fifties is a novel about social issues.

Hugh Bennet, a young reporter, working for a small-town newspaper, is assigned to cover a local tradition at Far Wether. The residents there celebrate Guy Fawkes night by burning the wicked old squire, who stole their land and women, in effigy. It is quite a night with the bonfire going on on the village green – everyone gathered is merry. However, the night comes to a halt when several young hooligans on bikes turn up at the event and stab a tavern owner who had humiliated them at a dance hall a week ago. The biker gang flees the scene soon after, and the police get called, leaving the few witnesses, including Hugh, to assess what they may have seen and heard during the few confused moments of the deadly altercation in the smoky lights of the bonfire.

The Progress of a Crime is not a typical whodunit. After the murder, the police rounds up the six boys of the gang and brings them into questioning. I felt the interrogation techniques used by them were often coercive – one of the detectives is particularly anti-immigrant, and they scare the Pole in the gang saying he will be deported to Poland. When the police let go of the boys for the night, a second murder happens. I had little to no doubt that the leader of the gang, who the other boys refer to as King, was responsible for the two murders. What I doubted was the role young Gardner, King’s lackey, played in them. Both these boys get tried for the murders after the other four boys turn on them. If you wish to get a clear answer on whether Gardner committed the crime, you’ll be disappointed. His guilt or innocence is irrelevant to the story. What is central is how motivations and biases of those who involved, particularly the media, influence the narrative in the court of public opinion. 

Even though the past four years have made me sympathetic towards most media and reporters, there’s no denying of their tendency to sensationalize news. In The Progress of a Crime, a national paper wants to pick up the tab for Gardner’s legal expenses in exchange for access. The Tory-leaning paper is owned by a Lord, whereas Gardner’s father is a simple Labour man. So there’s a political angle here – a desire to appear straight and apolitical to the general public. Knowing what was driving them made me cringe at some of their actions. They want to sell this “teenage delinquent” story in a particular way, and they invade Gardners’ privacy like bloodhounds to get the scoop, highlighting a dark side of journalism that’s still valid today. 😞

3.5 stars. The Progress of a Crime won the Edgar Award in 1961.

Note: Many thanks to British Library Publishing for sending me a review copy of The Progress of a Crime.

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