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