Monday, December 29, 2008

Required Reading: The Bryant & May series by Christopher Fowler

A while back, I happened on Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries, better known as the Bryant & May series, after the two lead characters. These novels are perfect reading for those of the Dust & Corruption persuasion. The two main characters, aging detectives whose partnership is more enduring than any other relationship in their lives, are compelling and enjoyable. (It almost qualifies as a gay love story, except there's nothing sexual. Is this what's called a "bromance" these days?)

So far, there's six books in the series, but I've completed the first four.

The first, FULL DARK HOUSE, introduces the pair and their squad, Scotland Yard's Peculiar Crimes Unit. An explosion rips through the unit's HQ in the present day, apparently killing 80-year-old detective Arthur Bryant. His partner and best friend John May investigates, linking the explosion to the first case they investigated as a team: a series of grisly murders in a theater about to stage a production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, in the midst of the Blitz. There's a lot of humor, but also lots of twisted grotesquerie with all the backstage shenanigans. In the end, it's almost like a mix of Gaston Leroux with Dr. Phibes, and the story bounces between the 00s and the 40s smoothly. It's a load of fun, with so much darkness simmering under the surface to be slightly unsettling, as enjoyable as it is.

In THE WATER ROOM, an elderly agoraphobic woman is found in her basement, dressed as if to go out shopping. She's dead and her throat and mouth are full of water...not tap water, but river water. What happened? Who is responsible? This is a devilishly fun whodunit that mixes old-style grotesquerie with modern sensibilities. Who is the mysterious Egyptian and what treasure does he seek in the London sewers? Why has an expert on London's (real) underground rivers started hanging out with shady characters? The drowned woman is the first in a series of murders that start to seem like a ritual...there's a burial alive (earth), a smothering (air), and an immolation (fire). There's certainly some deviltry afoot. A fun read, and the relationship between the two characters is compelling as always.

And, naturally, it made me start thinking of the underground rivers here in Washington DC, especially Tiber Creek, and what sort of secrets could be lurking there....

Next comes SEVENTY-SEVEN CLOCKS, in which a series of bizarre murders hits 70s London, with the victims being members of an aristocratic family, or those connected to the family. One is found sitting in the Savoy hotel, dead from water moccasin venom. A man in Edwardian dress throws acid at a Waterhouse painting, then later is killed by an exploding watch. Other deaths involve throat-slitting, a poisoned compact, doctored drugs, and other weirdness. There's Pre-Raphaelite art, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, esoteric sects, and other fun, with a gloriously bizarre climax. As one character notes, it seems like something out of The Avengers. It verges on sci-fi, or steampunk. Lots of fun.

This time around, in TEN SECOND STAIRCASE, Bryant & May are back in the present day, investigating a bizarre killing, where a controversial artist is murdered and made part of her own installation. The only witness describes an eighteenth-century highwayman on a horse. In rapid succession, a series of D-list celebrities die under bizarre circumstances, with the Highwayman being seen at each sight, and rapidly becoming a folk hero. Meanwhile, the members of the PCU have to deal with the possibility of their unit being shut down, and pressures to finally solve the ongoing Leicester Vampire case (which has been mentioned in all the novels to date). One of the more thoughtful PCU novels...but I won't say in what way.

There are two more novels in the series, WHITE CORRIDOR and THE VICTORIA VANISHES. I don't know how many he plans on writing in the series, but I love them. They mix old-style murder-mystery conventions with modern ideas and sensibilities, in a way that few authors manage to do without seeming precious or twee. Check 'em out, folks.

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