A review that originally appeared in Black Static #13:-
Christopher Fowler: On the Loose
(Doubleday hardback, 352pp, £16.99)
The last Bryant & May book ended on a bleak note for London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, and the opening of this one picks up on that, with leading light Arthur Bryant in the doldrums, the Unit’s Mornington Crescent HQ ‘sold’ out from under their feet and the whiff of disgrace in the air. But then the discovery of a dead body in a freezer with the head missing, and a perceived threat to the King’s Cross redevelopment scheme, sees political expediency come into play. The PCU are called back to active duty, albeit with a rundown warehouse that once belonged to an occult society as their base of operations, and with no access to the boons of modern policing. While May investigates the more mundane aspects of the case, Bryant is off like a hound on the scent, intent on linking the murder to the presence of a man dressed as a stag, seen on the streets of the area at night. As the case unfolds more bodies pop up and the history of London itself becomes an issue, all trails leading back to a serial killer in the making.
Though not impossible, the plot here is contrived, with roots sunk deep in the legendary past of the city that Bryant (and, I suspect, Fowler) adores so much. In particular I found the circumstances behind the re-establishment of the PCU unconvincing, with a very flimsy justification for taking the case out of the hands of the regular police. Plot is a side issue though, just the framework within which Fowler plays his games and puts these beautifully realised characters, warts and all, through their paces. As one of the characters admits, the PCU are family, a large and diverse family at that, complete with charming bounder, black sheep, child prodigy, miserable uncle and a loony old aunt who is kept locked in the attic, for her own good as much as that of everybody else, and so much of the appeal of these books lies in the opportunity given the reader to spend time with these oddballs, to step into their world and feel welcome. Imagine The X-Files reified, only with Holmes and Watson in place of Mulder and Scully, and the books written by P. G. Wodehouse, and you have some idea of the idiosyncratic and distinctly British flavour of the Bryant & May novels. And yes, humour is a definite part of the mix, with some lovely tongue in cheek dialogue and sly asides, gentle satire of the rush to modernise and redevelop in which so much of value gets heedlessly swept away.
Fowler never forgets that he has a story to tell though, and a rather grim one at that. At the centre of the book, alongside the mystery, is a chilling character study of the evolution of a sociopath, a monster who flits in and out of the story like a cipher, or ghost in a machine, manipulating people and events, killing for the first time and then getting a ‘taste for death’. In the sly and cunning Mr Fox, Fowler may just have created a Ripley for the noughties and an arch-nemesis for Bryant & May. The novel ends on a terrible note of tragedy, one that while undoubtedly right for the story Fowler has to tell at the same time robs characters and readers alike of any sense of closure. I remember there being talk of this as the last book in the series, but it’s hard to believe Fowler will bring the curtain down at this juncture, not when there is unfinished business of such magnitude. I certainly hope not.