TagChristopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House (2003)

My second choice for the Great Transworld Crime Caper, and one that was always going to be on my list. I enjoyed Christ Fowler’s seventh Bryant & May mystery last year, and was interested to find out what the earlier ones were like. Now I’ve gone back to the beginning with Full Dark House and… well, perhaps I’m just being difficult, but now I wonder what it would have been like had I read this one first!

But there is a sense in which reading the first book out of order makes a difference to how one perceives it, because Full Dark House begins with Arthur Bryant apparently dying in an explosion that destroys the offices of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Except there are more books (set in the present day) featuring Bryant & May and the PCU following on from this, so something more than meets the eye must be going on. Knowing this meant that a certain amount of suspense was inevitably lost to me, or at least turned into something else. This was also, of course, the book that had to introduce the characters of Bryant & May, and establish their partnership – but I already knew them from Bryant & May On the Loose, and felt that I didn’t appreciate all this as much as I might have. Of course, it’s impossible to say; but it does highlight how my opinion of this novel might be affected simply by what I’ve read previously.

The main plot of Full Dark House takes place not in the present day, but at the time of the Blitz, when the rational, nineteen-year-old John May joins the PCU, partnering with Bryant – three years his senior, and of a mindset much more befitting the Golden Age of detective fiction, seeking elaborate and fanciful explanations that draw on obscure knowledge. The two investigate a series of strange murders in a London theatre which is preparing to stage a production of Orpheus in the Underworld. The cast are being picked off one by one; does it have anything to do with the faceless figure rumoured to haunt the building?

One of the things that struck me most about Bryant & May On the Loose last year was the interplay between the Golden-Age and more modern styles of detection (as exemplified by the contrasting approaches of the two protagonists): it wasn’t a case of one triumphing over the other; both were given their chance to shine. It’s the same in Full Dark House: appropriately enough for the time and place (though Bryant fears the time of Holmesian detection has passed, wartime London is presented as somewhere that could still believe in the extraordinary, because the times were extraordinary; and the theatre itself is a kind of luminal space between the outside world and the inner ‘reality’ of the stage), resolving the mystery requires a combination of both approaches. Once again, I’m intrigued by Fowler’s series, and will be reading more.

Links

Full Dark House blogged elsewhere: Fleur Fisher; Ms Bookish; The Book Jotter; Mel’s Random Reviews.

Christopher Fowler’s website

Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May On the Loose (2009)

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.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of Bryant & May On the Loose: Chasing Bawa, Notes of Life, Five Minutes Peace
Christopher Fowler’s website

Transworld Summer Reading Challenge

I’m joining in with a book bloggers’ challenge hosted by Transworld Publishers — over the summer, to choose, read and review four books from a list of fifteen. Participants are asked to post the image above, which is the only time that particular book will make an appearance on this blog…

The four books I have selected are:

1. Tim Davys, Amberville

2. Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep

3. Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May On the Loose

4. Matt Beaumont, E Squared

I think that’s quite an interesting mix, but we’ll see how it turns out. As ever, the titles above will turn into links as I blog about the books.

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