On to my third choice for the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge, selected because I’ve been meaning to read Christopher Fowler again for ages. I first really became aware of him when he was a Guest of Honour at FantasyCon in 2003, where he gave a brilliantly impassioned speech about the field (I believe a transcript was printed in an issue of Postscripts). During his interview, Fowler mentioned a novel of his called Disturbia (1997), which sounded interesting; I tracked a copy down, and enjoyed it – but I remember having to adjust the way I was reading it part-way through, when I what I thought was a straightforward contemporary London setting turned out to be something slightly different.
I had a similar experience with the present book, in that it really has to be approached with an awareness of what the author is seeking to do – which is to set a Golden Age detection in the present day – and the particular technique he uses to achieve that. Bryant & May On the Loose is the seventh novel featuring the titular detectives (though I’m sure at least one of them was in Disturbia), octogenarian but still active in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, set up to handle all the crimes that were just too odd for the mainstream Metropolitan Police.
At the start of this book, though, the PCU has been closed down, and its members have gone their separate ways. But then a headless body is found a freezer, there are sightings of a man dressed as a stag, with knives for antlers., and it all looks to have something to do with the building work taking place at King’s Cross. Sounds like a job for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, which reforms, albeit without official sanction, and with far fewer resources and rather less comfortable accommodation.
The first thing to say about Bryant & May On the Loose is that, even though it’s the seventh volume in the series, I didn’t feel disadvantaged at jumping straight in. There were inevitably going to be some references to back-story, but from my perspective, Fowler did a good job of balancing those with making the novel stand alone. And it makes me want to read the others so I can appreciate this one in context, which is no bad thing.
Before I started reading, I was half- expecting Bryant and May to be parodic, larger-than-life characters; but, actually (and I think this is a more interesting approach) they’re more low-key than that.
Arthur Bryant is the ‘Golden Age detective’ figure, steeped in knowledge of (and looking for clues in) local history and folklore; he’s subdued to begin with here, with the closure of the PCU, but soon gets back into his stride (I’d love to see him in ‘full flow’, which I guess I’ll find in other Bryant and May books). John May takes a more conventional approach; the differences between the two are summed up in this passage, spoken by May:
You always want to think [you’re searching for] twisted geniuses…You long to pit your wits against someone who hides clues in paintings and evades capture through their knowledge of ancient Greek. Forget it, Arthur; those days have gone. (362)
This highlights another key aspect of Fowler’s technique: though Bryant gets his time in the sun (e.g. the chance to explain everything to his colleagues at the end), his Golden-Age style is constantly being interrogated (pardon the pun) and shown to be an ill fit for the modern world – even when it has apparently been vindicated.
Above this level, we have a novel which is – in true Golden Age tradition – a great pleasure to read. There are a few moments where I feel the exposition is overly dense; but, mostly, the book rattles along. I’ll be reading more Bryant and May novels in the future, no doubt about that.