Thursday, April 19, 2012

Required Reading: BRYANT & MAY OFF THE RAILS by Christopher Fowler

I'm way late on getting this started; his new book is already hitting shelves. But hey, at least it's here.

Bryant & May, the aging cops who star in Fowler's delightful series, are happy that their old team is reassembled and it looks like the Peculiar Crimes Unit (or PCU) is about to be officially reinstated. They're smarting from a double loss: the death of policeman Liberty Ducaine, killed at the end of the last book, and the escape of wily criminal Mr. Fox, a sort of funhouse-mirror version of Bryant & May themselves.

They're trying to pick up Fox's trail (tally ho!) when a series of crimes in London's Underground (for the uninitiated, that's London's historic subway system, opened in 1863 and often referred to as The Tube) catch their attention. There's a robbery during a flash mob dance, then a woman dies under odd circumstances. It appears she simply tripped and fell on the stairs, but there's an odd sticker on her back, and there's a strong possibility that she was pushed. But why?

Soon there's an attempted murder, a disappearance, and two more deaths, and the PCU is running mad through the subway system, trying to locate the killer. Are they related? What about the oddball group of college students? Are they anarchists? What's the story with that nightclub? Is it Mr. Fox? Is it someone else?

Fowler's obvious passion for London's history and landscape are evident, and his focus (obviously) is on the Underground. The personnel of the PCU are in their full eccentric glory, and Liberty Ducaine's brother Fraternity shows up. Mr. Fox is as evil as ever, and there's enough references to past cases to keep thing lively.

There's also a very amusing bit where one of the two detectives has been found to be writing his memories of some of his cases (obviously, the earlier novels in the series) and is criticized for playing fast and loose with the timeline and their own ages - obvious a fun nod to the fact that these two policemen haven't aged a jot since being introduced in 2003 and how, in the real world, they'd have been farmed off long ago.

Fowler manages his signature balance of humor and mystery, with enough simmering gothicism to keep things from getting too cutesy and twee. There's talk of how the PCU's new offices were once the HQ for an occult society (and I'm waiting for that to come into play in a future novel) and the general mishmash of London's King's Cross area. There's also a real life tragedy, the 1987 King's Cross Fire, incorporated into the story that gives a good insight into one character's psyche.

Fowler's new book, The Memory of Blood, is out now and I've heard he's got a new one waiting in the wings for later this year. (Dammit, man, I want to sit down and read them all in can I do that if you keep adding more? Oh well, might as well keep 'em coming.) Bryant & May Off the Rails is indeed off the rails, in the best possible way, and as with the rest of the PCU series, Required Reading.

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