Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #6:-
WATCHING THE DETECTIVES
Christopher Fowler is a writer with many strings to his bow. Black Static readers will know him from his Interference column, but that’s just the start. There are the short stories, ten volumes of them by now, beginning with 1984’s The Bureau of Lost Souls and ending with last year’s Stoker nominated Old Devil Moon, and there are the novels – Roof world, Spanky, Calabash and Breathe, to name just a few.
More recently with the Bryant & May Investigate series of novels Fowler has dipped a toe in the murky waters of the detective/mystery genre, though anyone who comes to these books expecting police procedural, cosy or hard boiled fare, simply doesn’t know Fowler. He is his own man and the spin he puts on these mystery novels is uniquely off the wall, as witness Full Dark House (2003), the first volume in the series, winning the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award for Best Novel, while its successor, The Water Room, was nominated for the, possibly more apposite, Crime Writers’ Association People’s Choice Dagger Award. Fowler is a writer whose work confounds expectation and defies categorisation, and in the world of niche marketing he is probably a PR man’s worst nightmare.
Bryant & May Investigate concern the doings of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, a little known division of the police force that operates out of premises in Mornington Crescent and concerns itself with crimes that are simply too outré for the regular police to deal with, while at the same time fighting off attempts by the higher ups to shut their operation down. And if anybody is thinking The X-Files then it’s a fair cop, but written with a distinctly British sensibility, the spirit of Doyle’s great detective wafting through the narrative and a humour rooted in character that puts me in mind of Wodehouse. In lieu of the sexy Mulder and Scully we get the doggedly unsexy Arthur Bryant and John May, octogenarian detectives who know where all the bodies are buried and are simply too good at their jobs to be put out to graze just yet, one of them a ‘true believer’ of sorts and the other a sceptic who is coming around to the ‘more things in heaven and earth’ viewpoint.
We move from the general to the particular.
White Corridor (Bantam paperback, 366pp, £7.99) is the fifth book in the series, and it starts with Bryant persuading May to accompany him in a van to a Spiritualists’ Convention, only for the two of them to get stranded somewhere on Dartmoor when blizzards hit. Back at the PCU medical examiner Oswald Finch is found dead in his own morgue, and as the room was locked from the inside only somebody with access could have committed the crime, which means all PCU staff are suspects. With a royal visit imminent, Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright heads up the investigation, getting telephonic help from Bryant and May, who have problems of their own to cope with. A young woman and her son are being stalked by a serial killer who has trailed them all the way from France, and stuck in a vehicle amid the snowdrifts the pair are sitting ducks, with only Bryant and May on hand to save them. Only nothing here is quite what it seems.
In The Victoria Vanishes (Doubleday hardback, 333pp, £14.99) Bryant is walking home one night when he sees a woman enter an olde worlde style pub, and the next morning her dead body is found, but The Victoria Cross has vanished, much to Bryant’s dismay. On further investigation the detectives discover that several other women have died in mysterious circumstances after visiting public houses (though these establishments did not vanish). It appears a serial killer is preying on women in public houses, and thus striking a blow at the very heart of the British way of life. The detectives must catch the culprit before news gets out and panic grips the nation. But of course, there is a lot more to it than that.
From a plot point of view, these books are so delightfully convoluted that they remind me of another cherished British institution, The Avengers. There’s the same madcap, anything goes invention about them, with Fowler’s tongue firmly in his cheek, though he stops short of the wilder excesses of that much missed programme. At times verisimilitude begins to slip, but you carry on because you trust that Fowler is clever enough to make the most preposterous of plot twists seem thoroughly convincing in retrospect and tie up all the loose ends satisfactorily. He has a keen awareness of how much the reader will swallow, and often gives his stories a solid foundation in topical events, as with The Victoria Vanishes, whose resolution echoes a political scandal of a few years back. It’s almost as if Fowler is invoking the fact is stranger than fiction defence in advance of any criticism, and by doing so tapping into our love of conspiracy theories and fear of government culpability.
While I wouldn’t describe these books as primarily character driven they are certainly character enriched. There is in the interaction of Bryant and May a sense of genuine warmth and affection that stops short of sentimentality, an awareness of personal foibles and shortcomings, but laced with tolerance. Bryant is multi-faceted, a pagan, polymath and fount of esoteric wisdom, something of the anachronism about him, and also a bit overbearing at times, one might even say a bully, albeit of the most charming variety and always with his ‘victim’s’ benefit in mind, and at the heart of the man is a personal code of honour and integrity. May shares his partner’s code, but is the more pragmatic of the two, in some senses the sounding board for the other man, Watson to his Holmes, but never the mere sidekick such a comparison might imply. These two have worked together for a long time and it shows; they complement each other perfectly, in a relationship that is a marriage in all but name, as comfortable as old slippers, but each man with his secrets and private spaces, so that the relationship can go on growing.
Then there are the supporting cast, the members of the PCU, an assortment of square pegs who, after trying many a round hole, have finally washed up in a place where they belong and where their unique talents will be put to good use. There’s Raymond Land, ostensibly the chief of the unit but in reality only a figurehead for Bryant, a bureaucrat whose career aspirations have floundered on the rock of the PCU but slowly coming to realise his consolation prize is the real deal. There’s Janice Longbright, a sexy woman with a lot to prove, both to her colleagues and herself, and there’s cantankerous medical examiner Oswald Finch and his replacement, young Giles Kershaw, who needs to use his intuition more and proves himself by throwing out the rulebook. There’s Detective Constable Colin Bimsley, who has a thing for Detective Constable Meera Mangeshkar, and she is completely indifferent to him, and so you just know that given time not only are they going to get together, but it will probably end badly. There are all of these and others beside, each one of them a bird with broken or clipped wings, and being slowly but surely transformed by the paternal Bryant and May into soaring eagles.
Each book opens with a mocked up duty roster and, in the case of The Victoria Vanishes, a set of staff bulletins, a neat touch which enables Fowler to introduce his dramatis personae and at the same time set the gentle, comedic tone for much of what follows. In similar grace notes Fowler demonstrates his love for and knowledge of the city of London, with the oracular Bryant holding forth about its lesser known byways and history, and he also shows off his esoteric learning, with a miscellany of obscure occult and mythological information that takes us down intriguing backwaters. But of course the ‘facts’ he slots into the narrative as erudite window dressing could simply be incidental invention, and perhaps the real value for the reader is in not knowing, of allowing the conjuror the secrets of his trade.
A subplot of each book involves an attempt by those in power to shut down the PCU, and though I haven’t read them I get the impression this also happened in previous volumes, introducing an element of the formulaic into the mix, but if so Fowler remains unpredictable to the end. As The Victoria Vanishes shuffles offstage the PCU seems to have suffered a fait accompli, and though you know and hope that they can come back from this blow, there’s also the possibility that Fowler may have decided it’s time to move on and nothing can be taken for granted. Underlying both books is a feeling of nostalgia tainted with fatalism, a sense that the times they are a changing and all the babies are being thrown out with the bathwater, that the precious things, the virtues we hold dear, are constantly under threat, and the perilous existence of the PCU is a metaphor for that process of erosion.
So get these books now while you can, treasure them for their whimsicality and originality and invention, because just as there is a bureaucrat with a hard on for the residents of Mornington Crescent you can bet that somewhere out there is a marketing apparatchik with a business degree doing profit and loss studies on Bryant & May Investigate.