Bryant and May - London's Glory by Christopher Fowler

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Bryant and May - London's Glory by Christopher Fowler

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Bryant and May return for a series of short adventures in true anarchic style. The silliness of the detectives doesn't stop them from being proper mystery stories…just what you want on a dark commute out of the City. Gentle humour that will make you smile rather than laugh loud enough to annoy fellow-passengers, and murders to solve along the way.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: November 2015
Publisher: Doubleday
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780 857523457

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In the depths of the last B&M review I wrote I said Of course, it's unbelievable, farcical. But then you don't come to a Bryant and May story for realism. You come for absurdity. Naturally, I stand by that comment. Fowler has concocted his characters and has no shame in shunting them up and down the time-line of British history as he sees fit.

If, like me, you struggle with the idea of Poirot meeting Hastings sometime just after the Great War, already beyond middle-age, but still functioning unchanged in the early 1960s, even then Bryant and May might just test your credulity to breaking point. So take my advice and switch it off.

By his own admission, Fowler wilfully plays with his characters. It is entirely possible that he manipulates their ages, along with their dress codes, but as their personalities appear to be immutable, that doesn't help. It's rather easier to think of them as having their own personal, undisclosed TARDIS, and leaving it at that. Fowler doesn't try to link things up any more than is necessary to avoid actual contradictions. He insists that each novel is intended to stand alone.

I, for one, am prepared to take them on that basis, if for no other reason than that they are too silly to get worked up about. That's the charm of them.

So much for the background. London's Glory isn't a novel. It's a collection of short stories, offered up as eleven missing cases from the files of London's Peculiar Crimes Unit.

At this point I have to throw in a "don't start from here" warning. I love Bryant and May because of the frivolity and absurdity, which is allowed full rein in the novels. In these pieces of short fiction, there isn't space for the nuances so unless you already understand the characters and the workings of the PCU, I suspect they won't hold up as well as they do for those of us familiar with the territory.

For the uninitiated however, Fowler provides a helpful Dramatis Personae. He gives us

- Raymond Land, who you can forget, he barely has a walk-on part in these stories

- Janice Longbright, worth a look because in a rare first person outing, she gets to tell one of her own stories

- Meera Mageshkar the stroppy, difficult, Kawasaki-driving DC never gets her full credit in my view

- and the supporting cast, which will mean more to aficionados than it will to newcomers even after reading the book

But above all he tells us that Senior Detective Arthur Bryant is Elderly, bald, always cold, scar-wrapped, a wearer of shapeless brown cardigans and overlarge Harris tweed coats... an enigma: well-read, rude, bad-tempered, conveniently deaf and a smoker of disgusting pipe tobacco… I think of him as Rumpole of the Bailey's long-lost-twin…

…while John May, his partner in crime, is taller, fitter, more charming and personable…technology friendly, three years younger than Bryant and drives a silver BMW. A sometimes melancholy craver of company…Vain, a bit of a ladies man.

It might just be me, but I find May the greater enigma of the two.

So to the eleven tales… what can I say without giving the game away? Very little to be fair…The Secret Santa, In the Field, On the Beat, In The Soup, the Nameless Woman, the Seven Points, On the Cards, Ahoy!, a Blind Spot, the Bells of Westminster and the Mystery Tour. Most of them are set in London at its most gruellingly wintery – from the great fog to unromantic melting slush – but just occasionally Arthur is forced beyond Zone 1 for a proper country house mystery or even, the gods forfend, off on a cruise.

They're all tales told in the spirit of the golden age of crime fiction, some of them deliberately structured to conform to the clichés of the time – Fowler claims at one point not to have previously written a 'locked room' mystery, to which one can only respond, well, maybe, technically. Many of his episodes are in all but name locked-room mysteries – confined if not physically, then by other parameters of the set up.

He is, by his own admission, a lover of the golden age of detective fiction and (the keynote humour aside) that is how he writes. Unfortunately, those days didn't always play fair on the reader… sudden clues would appear from nowhere. Deductions would be made on the back of clues we had not been given – thus is it often so with Bryant and May… but at least we have the solace of May struggling alongside us – it is usually Bryant who finds the rabbit to pull out of the hat.

Rather than trying to work out the answer, I find myself trying to spot the missed clue along the way.

The stories are none the worse for that.

Great literature it isn't… but it's fun, it's a series of entertaining puzzles, and I can think of many a worse way to while away a dark winter's evening.

I enjoy them immensely for what they are.

For writers there's something of a bonus in this collection…Fowler shares his thoughts on his work. His introduction muses on why the crime genre has stuck around so long and his personal trawl through the history of crime fiction. Then each story is introduced by a very short passage explaining how it came to be written. Finally, he does something similar for each of his previous novels, giving what he calls the 'backstory' to each of the books.

In each case, these musings are no more than a paragraph, and if they don't exactly give a sharp insight into a writer's deepest psyche, they do give jumping off points for exercising one's own creative inclination.

Reviewers often suggest that this or that book is suitable for your next "book club" read… I'd like to recommend this one to anyone involved a "writers group".

If you're new to our heroes you might do well to start with one of the full-length adventures Bryant and May and the Invisible Code was where I came in… or go back to the golden age itself with one of the best around at the time, Albert Campion in Coroner's Pidgin by Margery Allingham. You might also enjoy The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth.

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