Bryant and May – The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

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Bryant and May – The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: As London disintegrates into burning chaos Bryant and May seek out a singular killer. In what looks like it might be their last case, the ageing and eccentric detectives race to stop a full-scale revolution – the thrill of the chase, light-hearted humour and an unexpected touch of pathos in the 12th of the Bryant and May series.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2015
Publisher: Doubleday
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0857522047

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The Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) has a new set of overlords. For reasons that were explored in a previous couple of outings they have been transferred to the City Of London Police. The Met is still the big players in the area. City of London Police only police the old city, the square mile, the financial district in other words, that has very little in the way of street crime, because no-one lives there anymore and the people who work there are, by and large, either too rich to need to steal, or too smart to have to do so on the streets.

But of course, the people who work there do steal. Come on, they're bankers…! At the start of this latest outing for Fowler's ageing crime-fighters, yet another banker has been caught with his hand in the till.

Ordinarily, this might not have been much in the way of news, but the anti-capitalists are taking to the streets. It's that traditional time of mayhem between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night – both later appropriations of the Celtic festival of Beltane – all reasons to wander around wearing masks and setting fire to things. What starts as a demonstration, becomes a riot, becomes a series of conflicts that show all the signs of beginning to spiral into a full-blown revolution. London is ablaze, metaphorically and in places literally. Whatever happened to blitz spirit? A few nights of mayhem and the capital seems to be shutting up shop – people are leaving the city – chunks of it are no-go areas.

Of course, it's unbelievable, farcical. But then you don't come to a Bryant and May story for realism. You come for absurdity.

For those who've not come across them, Bryant and May are stalwarts of the PCU. They're somewhere between Holmes and Watson and television's cold case squad from New Tricks. An ill-matched couple as you'd expect. Arthur Bryant is as eccentric in his personal habits as he is in his investigative matters. Dressing strangely, carrying his lunch around in a voodoo skull, consulting witches and psychics as a matter of course. John May does stalwart sidekick duty, being suave and sophisticated in his attire, attractive to the ladies, but unable to hold down a relationship, possibly because in many ways he's as married to his partner as he is to the job. Their methods are unconventional, but their track record is formidable, which is naturally why they get away with it.

The beginnings of mayhem on the streets shouldn't have anything to do with them, but with everyone else overstretched, they are asked to identify the body of a homeless victim who seems to have got caught up in the conflagration by choosing the wrong doorway in which to bed down for the night.

More deaths follow and naturally it's only Arthur Bryant who is convinced that there is a link between them. Equally naturally, matters of jurisdiction are simply disregarded as he follows his hunches and brings the rest of the haphazard squad along with him.

As always with a Fowler story, the investigation is the main event and is what keeps you turning the pages, but along the way you're also entertained by sardonic swipes at the career-politics playing out further up the chain - the delightful Orion Banks has been moved on and a 'blast from the past' is back in charge. There are the expected mis-matched attempts at personal relationships by team members - in this case, a field-officer finding herself in an arranged engagement that sits fairly easily with her until she realises that her husband to be is arranging the wedding with her mother, by-passing her entirely in the process. If he called her sweetie one more time, she was going to thump him in the face.

London plays a solid supporting role as ever. I usually object to people overworking their knowledge of the landscape, but here it does somehow seem to help to be able to visualise Blackfriars station or Leadenhall market because the author doesn't waste any words on descriptions – what you don't know, you can make up, it's all just background. The plot is the thing.

The plot and the joy taken in the absurd way we all relate to each other. The fine thread of sharp socio-political comment that snakes beneath the surface tying the whole together is just a bonus.

Then, just in case you think it's all being taken a little too-light-heartedly, it seems that Arthur Bryant is beginning to finally, genuinely, 'lose it'. He is having blank spots. Suddenly not knowing where he is, or where he lives. This isn't Alzheimer's. This is the sudden onset of that form of dementia caused by mini-strokes. And it's frightening.

Fowler has the gift of being able to weave this into the main plot-line in a way that allows the unintended humour of the situations to still be enjoyed, whilst surreptitiously building an emotional response that might just take you by surprise as the case plays to its conclusion.

For previous exploits of the not-so-dynamic duo check out Bryant and May and the Invisible Code and Bryant and May: The Bleeding Heart or for the beginnings of crime shot with humour take a trip back in time to one of the masters The Return of the Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett.

Christopher Fowler's Bryant & May Books in Chronological Order

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