Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Bryant and May mysteries by Christopher Fowler

A few years ago I picked up a book by a writer I had never heard of before: Christopher Fowler. The book was called The Darkest Day and was by way of being a sort of combined horror story and murder mystery. I loved everything about it. Fowler has a unique and deeply compelling style of writing, which I will attempt to describe in a minute, and creates vivid images in various settings around London. The thing I loved most of all, however, was a pair of elderly detectives called Arthur Bryant and John May and yes, there are at least two deliberate in-jokes there.

Bryant and May have been working together for many years, we discover, and jointly head something called the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Though very different, they work extremely well together. Bryant is a curious mix of the traditional and the "alternative", constantly consulting witches, psychics and arcane books on everything from ancient religions to forgotten London landmarks. May is a modern man who likes his gadgets, takes trouble with his appearance and likes the ladies, sex seemingly having passed Bryant by at some stage over the years. I had not enjoyed anything so much for ages. I can remember feeling disappointed when the book came to an end, as I felt strongly that Bryant and May deserved a series of their own.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when I discovered that Fowler had evidently been of the same opinion, and had embarked upon a series of books featuring the pair. One of them, incidentally, is a re-write of The Darkest Day under a different name, which induced a strong sense of bewildered deja-vu until I read the author's note at the back. The book is much improved, by the way, as the supernatural elements, which I felt sat a little oddly in a detective story, have been removed.

One of the greatest joys in reading is to find someone who can write a gripping story that reads like a literary novel.

"In the deepening shadows, a young black girl had fallen asleep so soundly that she had died, her soul departing on respectful tiptoe, as quietly as the fading breeze."

If you like Vargas, Mankell and Perez-Reverte then you will love Fowler. His descriptions are darkly evocative, his characters are well rounded and, for the most part, hugely sympathetic. There is even humour, particularly in some incisive one-liners and little throwaway comments. There is also a constant stream of cultural allusions, some of them decidedly quirky. For example, in the book I have just finished there is a bit part for a character called Dame Maud Hackshaw ... (I did the same thing with a character in Major Benjy, but nobody seems to have noticed).

It is difficult to do justice to the job of explaining just how very superior these books are to many of today's offerings. My only regret is that I am rapidly approaching the end of the series. Start with Full Dark House and go on from there.

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