Bryant and May: Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler

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Bryant and May: Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Another outing for the eccentric Peculiar Crimes Unit looks very much like it might be their last. As enjoyable as this one is, I'm not sure that would be a bad idea…it may be time to rest the characters for a while.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2016
Publisher: Doubleday
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780857523426

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The thirteenth outing for Bryant and May is looking very much like it will be their last. Arthur Bryant is on compassionate leave whilst tests are continuing, which are likely to confirm that he is suffering from Alzheimer's. His condition is worsening almost by the day, memory lapses are morphing into full-scale hallucinations.

John May is trying to hold things together back at base, but with his long-term partner MIA, it's a struggle. May isn't really a leader, he's an efficient and effective second-in-command. He's a good detective, but he's old school – tends to do traditional detection. He doesn't have Bryant's eccentric way of looking at the world.

That eccentricity is what has made the Peculiar Crimes Unit the odd-ball – if very successful – outfit that this is. Without Bryant, it's likely that the PCU will not survive. Everyone knows that, which is why various subterfuges are at hand to try to keep him, however, unofficially, in the loop of the latest case.

The case in question revolves around the body of a young woman found chained to a post at low tide on the banks of the Thames.

The tale is told in two strands…alongside the going-nowhere-very-quickly investigation, we have the story of Ali Bensaud and his escape from Libya to wash up in London friendless, but with a store of ingenuity which will enable him to do what he wants more than anything: to get rich. This is a man of charm, a quick learner, who knows how to use people, not least because he has the knack of making them want to be used by him. He studies, he learns, he applies. He might not be a good person, but he's good at what he does…and another chancer, Cassie North (for want of another name), finds a kindred spirit.

Ali's story starts a long time before the current investigation, which allows for all sorts of motives to be hinted at, strengthened and undermined by turns. It's a standard genre mechanism and it's played to good effect here. Some red herrings are scuppered very quickly, others are dragged for the full length of the history.

Although humour is at the heart of the Bryant and May stories it isn't true comic writing. The essence is crime fiction, there is a crime and it has to be solved with the perpetrators brought to justice (or not). It's just that the mechanism for solving the crime is a bit left-field. As ever, even with Bryant not technically involved, there is much consulting of white witches and watermen and local tramps. There is a deal of esoteric meandering that may or may not have substance, mostly not in Bryant's view.

In earlier reviews, I've said that I love B&M because of the frivolity and absurdity. This one I found to be weaker on both counts, not least because it does have an 'end of an era' feel about it. There is a lurking sadness that not only because the characters themselves have been written into something of a corner, but because the author isn't quite up to sustaining the joke. The odd unexposed corners of London that are characters in their own right are becoming fewer, literally in the sense that they're being built over and therefore unavailable for use, and figuratively in that if they no longer exist, you can't even posit a fictional outcome. Fowler's work depends on it being true to London, the history of it - we have the old ways of the river at the heart of my of the tales, mudlarks and lightermen, and those of more dubious professions – and the changing of the guard with the bankers and corporatemen, and the modern snake-oil sellers not different from the old ones - taking their places. But there are only so many ways you can spin that before it becomes stale.

I enjoyed this outing as I have the others before it, but I feel a dwindling of anticipation. It's like an old friendship, where you won't necessarily decline an invitation to spend more time, but aren't sure that you'll be the one making the next phone call.

I smiled less often. It was more about working out the puzzle and less about enjoying the ride. It may be time to close down the merry-go-round and design a new attraction.

For earlier adventures of the PCU there is Bryant and May and the Invisible Code and Bryant and May: The Bleeding Heart or in a similarly silly vein we can recommend Harry Lipkin, Private Eye: The Oldest Detective in the World by Barry Fantoni.

Christopher Fowler's Bryant & May Books in Chronological Order

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