In The Spotlight: Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’ve been quite a lot of police procedural series so it’s a challenge to create one that is both innovative and credible. But innovation keeps the genre fresh so today let’s take a closer look at a police procedural series that’s anything but ‘garden variety:’ Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May stories. Let’s turn the spotlight on the first of these novels, Full Dark House.

Arthur Bryant and John May have very different mindsets and approaches to solving crimes (more on that shortly).Both though are members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), which was set up in 1940 to investigate crimes that the regular police detective teams couldn’t make much progress in solving. The two men have been the main members of the PCU since that time, so they have a long history together. When Bryant decides to write his memoirs, he makes a shocking discovery about the first PCU case and begins to investigate. Shortly after he starts asking questions, a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices and takes Bryant with it.

Now his grieving partner decides to deal with his loss by finding out who set the bomb that killed Arthur Bryant. To do that, May will have to go back to the 1940 Palace Phantom case, the case that Bryant was following up on when the blast occurred. That story, which Fowler tells in tandem with the modern day investigation, starts with the murder of Tanya Capistrania, who was to have a solo part in the Palace Theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus. The victim’s feet have been removed and although they’re found later, it’s an unusual kind of a crime – exactly the kind the PCU was set up to investigate. Bryant and May are just beginning to look into the case when there’s another death. French actor Charles Senechal, who was to play the role of Jupiter in the production, is killed in what looks like a horrible accident with scenery. Then there’s another death. And a disappearance. It’s obvious that someone wants very badly to close down Orpheus and Bryant and May and their team members are under a lot of pressure to solve the case before any more mayhem occurs.

At the same time as the young Bryant and May pursue the truth about what’s really going on at the theatre, the modern-day May slowly follows the trail his partner left. When we find out who is behind the events at the theatre and what the real motive is, we learn that an important aspect of the case was never resolved and that’s the piece that the modern-day Bryant discovered. In the end, we see how the past and present are woven together when the final piece of the 1940 puzzle is put in place.

This is a police procedural, so there’s an emphasis on collecting and making sense of evidence, following leads, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. There’s also a strong element of police politics running through the novel. The PCU is not exactly a choice assignment. It was originally set up to maintain public morale during the worst of the Blitz, the idea being that strange and ‘unsolvable’ crimes would lead to hysteria at a time when the public most needed to stay calm. However it’s not highly regarded and its members are constantly under ‘surveillance’ by the Powers That Be. In fact, one of its members Sidney Biddle was specifically assigned to keep tabs on the other team members and report to the top brass about them. And yet, the (dare I say it) scrappy, badly-underfunded little unit does prove itself.

There is also a strong element of atmosphere and setting in this novel. Readers are placed clearly in two Londons. One is the London of 1940, under siege by the Blitz, subject to real privation and rationing and coping with awful losses, both human and structural. Fowler doesn’t get gruesome, but neither does he sugarcoat the terrible toll that World War II took on London. The other London is the modern-day London of 21st Century technology, drugs gangs, diversity and the realities of today’s economics. It too is exciting and dangerous, but it is not the London that Bryan and May knew as young men.

Readers also get a strong sense of life in the theatre. The building itself is the scene for several of the events that happen, and it’s suitably mysterious, full of secrets and history and sometimes really creepy. We follow along as the 1940 cast, crew and front-office staff members gather together, rehearse, prepare for the opening of the production and deal with the large and small disasters that go along with any theatre production. I know it’s cliché, but in this case it’s fitting: the theatre really is a character in this novel.

You couldn’t at all call this novel a light, upbeat story. But there is a thread of sometimes sarcastic humour woven through it. Here, for example, is a bit of a description of Bryant and May’s first encounter with the theatre company’s artistic director Helena Parole:


‘Helena Parole had a handshake like a pair of mole grips and a smile so false she could have stood for Parliament. ‘Thank you so much for taking the time to come down and see us,’ she told May, as though she had requested his attendance at an audition. Her vocal chords had been gymnastically regraded to dramatize her speech, so that her every remark emerged as a declaration.’


There are some darkly funny moments in the novel too. For instance, Tanya Capistrania’s feet turn up in the stall of a chestnut vendor who was off obeying a call of nature. Bryant says of it,


‘I always think anyone who eats pavement food deserves an upset stomach, but this is beyond the pale.’


Readers who dislike that sort of black humour will be disappointed, but (to me anyway) Fowler doesn’t cross the line between dark humour and gratuitous gore used for effect.

Perhaps the strongest element in this novel is the partnership between the very different Arthur Bryant and John May. Bryant is by just about anyone’s standards eccentric, to say the least. He reads up on mythology, witchcraft, and arcane studies. He has a strange sense of humour and doesn’t care much how he dresses. He counts mediums among his friends and is happy to consider even the most unlikely explanation for a murder. In fact in this case he goes off on a very mistaken tangent at one point. But he’s easy to underestimate. He’s smart, shrewd and a good judge of character and in the end, he out-thinks the killer. For his part, John May thinks logically and uses evidence to lead him to a theory. He doesn’t have much truck with superstition or mythology and he has a rather orderly mind. He’s what some people call well-grounded. But he too is easy to underestimate. He’s a quick thinker and quite capable of taking suspects and witnesses by surprise. The two men really complement one another. At the beginning of their partnership each is a little awkward with the other. But as the years go by, they form a deep friendship despite the fact that they’re very different.

The mysteries themselves – both the modern-day case and the 1940 case – are believable once one understands the motives. Readers who prefer a simple explanation for a crime such as jealousy, greed or lust will be disappointed; this one’s more psychological and complex than that. But it fits with the characters and setting and the detectives find out the truth in a believable way.

Full Dark House is a uniquely London story featuring an unusual crime unit and two likeable sleuths. It’s got a pair of mysteries that are not obvious, a really unexpected twist at the end, and effective use of sarcastic wit and dark humour. But what’s your view? Have you read Full Dark House? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 4 March/Tuesday 5 March – House Report – Deborah Nicholson

Monday 11 March/Tuesday 12 March – The Rage – Gene Kerrigan

Monday 18 March/Tuesday 19 March – The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop – Gladys Mitchell


Filed under Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House

14 responses to “In The Spotlight: Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House

  1. I have only read one of Fowler’s books, Margot – Seventy-Seven Clocks – and, frankly, didn’t much enjoy it – found it too violent for my taste, too long (well over 500 pages) and in the end…well, let’s just call the solution a bit far-fetched for me, even given my enjoyment of impossible crime/locked room mysteries.. I didn’t realize that Bryant was killed off in the first novel, which, I suppose, means all the later books have been flashbacks? Your review sounds interesting, but given the size of the TBR list…

    • Les – I’m sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy Seventy-Seven Clocks. Everyone’s taste is different of course and I know what you mean about the solution. This one is shorter (368 pages) and maybe it’s just my view, but I think it explains some things that make the rest of the series make better sense. Perhaps at some point you’ll get the chance to give it a try. If you do I’ll be interested in what you think.

  2. I just bought this one Margot so I have decided to skip your port entirely, but will return as soon as I finish the book – whcih is to say, see you later!

  3. My son really likes this series. I liked the first book, the 2nd and 3rd books not so much. They seemed to drag and meander to me. But so many readers are impressed by these books. I have the first eight so I will keep trying. Maybe it is the black humor. I often don’t get the humor in mysteries.

    • Tracy – I think this one moves at a solid pace so I can see why this one didn’t seem to drag for you. It’s shorter too than some of the later novels. And about the humour? Everyone’s taste is different and I think that’s particularly true about things like humour.

  4. Les made a point about the Bryant-May series being flashbacks because Arthur Bryant is killed in the very first novel. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable reading about mysteries set in flashbacks and then moving to the present and then moving back into the past. I find this sort of narrative confusing unless it’s written superbly, that is in a way that you don’t realise the writer is, in fact, taking you back and forth. I’m sure Fowler achieves this admirably. That said, I haven’t read too many novels featuring two detectives as crime-solving partners and the Peculiar Crimes Unit does seem like an innovative setting for the investigation of unusual crimes. Thanks for the review, Ms. Kinberg.

    • Prashant – I agree completely that flashbacks have to be done very well if they’re to be effective. I think Fowler uses flashbacks well in this novel; it’s clear throughout the story what time the reader is in. But you’re quite right that that’s it’s not easy to do flashbacks well.

  5. It’s interesting to read your review now – after all, I wrote ‘Full Dark House’ about twelve years ago, and the series has continued since then to the present day. I think I was more acerbic back then, and it’s a very English sense of humour. By book ten I find I’ve mellowed somewhat, but am having great fun still exploring the ever-growing cast of characters.
    In many ways, ‘Full Dark House’ and ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’ are the two odd books out, as the rest are set in the present day and are, I think, better for it. Many thanks for your review.

    • Christopher – Thanks so much for your comments. It’s a pleasure to have your perspective. I really enjoy the sense of humour that’s woven into your series, and it’s obvious that you’re enjoying continuing to write it. That adds a great deal to the stories. It’s interesting too about your choice of dual timelines for some of your novels but not for others. I respect that choice to try new things and innovate as I think it keeps a series fresh. I wish you much continued success.

  6. I really need to read this series and I bought the first book several years ago…thanks Margot for another excellent post. This post has prompted me to read it really soon.

  7. I’ve only read this book and I really did enjoy it. Although I knew that there were more books,I had no idea that the series had continued to the present day. I really ought to try and catch up. The comments by the writer on the changes in tone are interesting aren’t they?

    • Sarah – Those comments really are interesting and I like the perspective they give. I think it keeps a series fresher when the author changes some things over time.

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