I’ve been aware of the Bryant & May books for a while, but it was this piece by their author Christopher Fowler that encouraged me to start reading them. You can peruse it for yourself, but what I particularly liked was Fowler’s dissection of crime fiction’s move towards greater ‘realism’ in recent years, which in his view is nothing of the sort – rather, ‘We’ll happily believe that the murder rate in Morse’s Oxford equals that of Mexico City if the story is told with conviction.’ In Fowler’s view, we have just exchanged one set of cliches for another: ‘there’s an accepted format for crime fiction that has become even more constricted of late, from subject matter to cover design, until it’s almost impossible to tell one author from the next.’
Now, even though I prefer my crime at the grittier end of the spectrum (and am no real enthusiast for the ‘Golden Age’ crime novels that initially inspired the Bryant & May books), I have to admit that Fowler has a point here. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve left unfinished or unread because they seem to tread over the same tired ground – the maverick but brilliant cop with the chaotic home-life, who in spite of his own neuroses/addictions successfully tracks down the killer. I’m currently thinking about writing my own series, not about this irksome oik but all the poor bloody people he leaves in his wake, clearing up the mess. They’re the people I feel sorry for, and sympathise with. What are their lives like?
Sometimes it feels like there’s nothing else in the library, so it’s very refreshing to read the Bryant & May books, which take a completely different approach. The London-based novels feature detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, long-standing members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. By the time the series reaches Off the Rails (the eighth book in the series), both men are well into their eighties, having worked together since the Blitz. This in itself makes the series distinctive, but Fowler also puts his own modern twist on many Golden Age conventions, making some seemingly improbable events and plot twists come alive.
In Off the Rails, the action is largely centred on the London Underground network. Bryant and May are on the trail of the murderous Mr Fox, responsible for much of the mayhem in their previous book Bryant & May On the Loose. However, they soon become aware that a killer is stalking the Tube. Is Mr. Fox responsible, or is someone else at work? Through their investigations, the detectives and their team uncover a wealth of interesting detail about the history of the Underground, including stories of abandoned stations, dead-end tunnels, hauntings and other strange underground dwellers.
What I liked about Off the Rails was the book’s complete lack of self-consciousness. The plot is complex, and not especially plausible, although Fowler doesn’t let this worry him. What is extremely well done is the impression that all is not as it first seems, with much more going on (quite literally) beneath the surface. Whilst not especially gritty, there’s nevertheless a unsettling darkness at the heart of this book, and one which draws on one of the most tragic episodes in London’s recent history.
Flicking through the novel after finishing it, I was particularly struck by an exchange between Bryant and his superior, Raymond Land. The two men are arguing about how long Bryant and May have known each other, and Land accuses Bryant of fabricating his memoirs, changing the outcome of past investigations as well as their time-frames. He challenges Bryant’s version of events in one case – which just happens to be the one we’re treated to in the first Bryant & May novel, Full Dark House. This raises the intriguing possibility that – in that book – we’re reading Bryant’s version of events. And if Land doesn’t trust it, should we? Like many of the other characters in the book when confronted with Bryant’s theories, I have no idea what this all means – but feeling the ground shift beneath one’s feet in this way is certainly entertaining.
I liked this playfulness very much, which also seeps through into the themes explored in the book. All of the Bryant & May novels explore hidden aspects of London’s history in an engaging, magpie way, with intriguing nuggets of trivia spread liberally through the books. As well as enlightening, they make me want to go back to the places described, to see just how true to life Fowler’s (or is it Bryant’s..?) descriptions are. In Off the Rails his description of King’s Cross station is very authentic, and made me look with fresh eyes at the newly renovated Birmingham New Street as I passed through it on my daily commute this morning. I spent a few moments wondering what dark stories might lurk beneath its shiny new surfaces – and, implausible or not, in briefly changing the way one looks at the world, Fowler’s Bryant & May books deserve all the praise that is justly heaped upon them.