Bryant and May: Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler

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Bryant and May: Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Bryant and May return somewhat to form in the case of the dead woman in the park. Controlled anarchy and solid detecting, with a side helping of social commentary.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2017
Publisher: Doubleday
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0857523433

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Bryant and May are back! So the slow decline into old age, with a side helping of dementia, isn't quite the Reichenbach Falls: it did give Fowler a cleaner and clearer way to have Arthur Bryant return to work. A simple he hasn't been well but he's back now and no more need be said about it.

For those not familiar with the series, Arthur Bryan and John May are the two Senior Investigators for the Peculiar Crimes Unit.

The unit is headed by Raymond Land who is currently in cloud cuckoo land a.k.a. that space that thinks you can run a public service on the business principles of a book entitled Lower Your Expectations and Raise Your Profits. He is the kind of leader that does the least damage if you don't tell him anything while it's happening, and let him take the credit afterwards. Well, it keeps the press off everyone else's back.

As well as those three, in the permanent team, we have Janice Longbright and Jack Renfield, both swaggering under the titles of Operations Director – though there's preciously little to direct - Meera Mangeshkar and Colin Bimlsey, both 'Co-ordination'. Whatever the job titles say: these four are just as much old fashioned detectives as Bryant and May themselves. They also have a similar attachment to the PCU.

They're backed up by the two Daves (Maintenance), Crippen (office cat), Dan Banbury doing CSI stuff and Giles Kershaw doing pathology somewhere eminently more sensible than the PCU.

It's never quite clear in that designation whether the Peculiar attaches to the Crimes or to the Unit. Probably both.

This becomes particularly clear in this episode as the regular team are joined by Steffi Vesta a scientific criminologist from Cologne, doing some kind of non-specific internship.

The story opens with the younger cops doing a free-running, base-jumping chase of a suspect across the rooftops and railway overheads on a rainy night near London Bridge Station. Roads and closed and people are being diverted and the concatenation of circumstances leads to a tragic accident.

No-one's actual fault. Just one of those horrible things.

A year later, a gardener in a private London square is doing his job, and indulging his photographic hobby, when he discovers the woman he's just caught on camera is now lying dead on the path. Her dog has vanished.

Her husband, recently dismissed from his lucrative employment is missing.

Bryant is convinced this is not going to be the only death...

The whole thing is set against the backdrop of London's green spaces, in particular the smaller, privately owned parks and squares. These are the 'wild chambers' of the title, spaces where urbanites can taste a touch of wildness. Now that mostly means trees and (unwild) flowers, a few birds, maybe a rabbit or a fox – but as Bryant indulging in his own peculiar brand of investigation searches for clues in the ancient past, in the history of the parks themselves, finds out, once upon a time the wildness in these places was of a more abandoned kind. More importantly, now, there is a plot afoot to steal these places – and it is a plot into which our team are blundering in their size tens.

So: we have a tragic accident, which must have some bearing, why else would we need to know about it and we have a murder (due to the circumstances of garden management essentially a 'closed room' murder mystery with its limited number of suspects).

Put all of this in say, Oxford, or Midsomer, or Lochdubh, and you'd have a neat set-up for a cosy crime puzzle – but that would be without reckoning on darker undertones at play and without Detectives who habitually consult psychics and find more clues in the local art gallery than at the crime scene – and certainly without a Senior Investigator who may not (as it turns out) have Alzheimer's, but who is still having hallucinatory conversations with dead people from his own sub-consciousness. His latest foible of employing 18th-century insults just adds to the joy.

The success of the Bryant and May series (this is the 14th full-length novel) is down to the fact that for all the silliness, pastiche, and frolickery, the rules of the game are adhered to. At its heart, it is a murder mystery. If the rules of that genre were broken it wouldn't matter how funny the rest of it was, it would be a betrayal.

Fowler manages to play by the rules for the genre by keeping the whole thing work-out-able, simultaneously head off into fantasy land with Bryant's conversing with long gone librettists, take a gentle side-swipe at the clichés of TV crime partnerships, pass social comment on how our public services are run and the threats to some of our treasured common assets, throw in more history of our capital city than any of us ever learned in school, wrap it all up on the minutiae of the private lives of people we might hope not to meet but would be endeared to if we did and just make the whole thing so delightfully entertaining to read.

I, for one, think this is incredibly clever. Fowler richly deserves his CWA Library Award

If you enjoy this, check out the earlier editions reviewed on this site, I came into the fold here Bryant and May and the Invisible Code or for the stateside equivalent, we can heartily 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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