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Sunday, 6 July 2008

Written in granite: Matchless

Last week I mentioned Christopher Fowler's "Bryant & May" series in passing and this week I've read the sixth in the series which has just been published in hardback. When Mr Fowler (who, for some reason, I always think ought to be known as "Kit" – even though I think the last time I came across a person called Christopher and known as Kit was in a Dickens novel, but somehow I feel that the person who writes these novels ought to be a "Kit". I imagine this might come as some surprise to Chris, as he's probably known in reality) embarked upon this series a few years back - 2003, I think – he announced that he'd be doing six of them and that'd be the lot. However he has shown some signs that he might be prepared to relent. I do hope so. He did, perhaps deliberately given that he did only plan half a dozen of these books, commit the classic series novelist's mistake: Agatha Christie admitted that had she realised that the Hercule Poirot books would merit even a second or third book, let alone thirty or so over a period of forty years, then she certainly wouldn't've made him so old. John Mortimer made precisely the same mistake with Horace Rumpole; if I remember rightly we're told in the first Rumpole book that he's sixty-nine next birthday (or is it sixty-seven? He's past statutory retirement age in any case). That was in 1978 which would make him either ninety-seven or ninety-nine now. So the moral for authors is clear: unless your resolve not to be drawn into a long-running series is absolutely steely then don't make your main character any older than you are, and ideally make him or her a bit younger which will allow you to continue writing past retirement age. Otherwise you'll be stuck doing what Christie, Mortimer and so many others have had to do and simply pretend that your character is somehow ageless a few books in. Of course, if your character is strong enough and becomes well-loved enough then this won't really matter but it seems to irk writers themselves.

However in Kit's (sorry, can't help it) case it's not actually so much of a problem. I don't think he's ever specified the exact ages of either Arthur Bryant or John May and in any case the point about them is that they're old, way past normal police retirement age, in fact they've probably done twice their thirty years (note to Ian Rankin: you didn't think of that, did you?) In the earlier part of the series the point was also that it allowed him to set his novels at least partly in the past. If I remember rightly, the first of them, Full Dark House, is set mostly in wartime London's theatre land, when his two detectives were just embarking upon their careers. This thread has been quietly abandoned to some extent in the later books, although they are always about London past and present and these later books have also developed the supporting cast at the Peculiar Crimes Unit to a much larger extent. In a touch that I feel sure is indebted to the long-running BBC Radio 4 "antidote to panel games" I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, the PCU's offices are located above Mornington Crescent tube station in Camden Town although the unit is forced to move out of these premises at least once in pretty nearly all of the later novels.

The only one of the six novels to be set to any degree at all outside of London is number five, White Corridor, when Bryant and May find themselves marooned in a snowdrift on the edge of Dartmoor but still manage to solve a fiendishly convoluted mystery in London by remote control, with the aid of their trusty cohorts.

I've no idea whether Kit has ever read any of the early French crime fiction I was talking about last week or whether it's more a coincidence or perhaps a coincidence of influences, but the fact remains that in many ways the reason I've been enjoying this series so much is because it does remind me of the Arsène Lupin, Fantômas and Rouletabille books. Now I'm pretty sure that Boris Akunin, the Russian author who is also writing wonderfully entertaining crime novels with outlandish plots and a firm rooting in history (in his case actually set in the late 19th century) has read at least the Fantômas books because, as I think I mentioned last week, his hero is called Erast Fandorin, who I take to be named for Jérôme Fandor in the series by Souvestre and Allain, but in Kit's case it could just be that he comes from a horror background, so he is also heir to the legacy of the Gothic, as were so many of those wonderful French novels. In English-language crime the closest obvious precursor to Bryant & May would be G.K Chesterton's Father Brown series, the locked-room mysteries (indebted to Leroux) of John Dickson Carr, the wonderfully outré plots dreamt up by Edmund Crispin (who, as trivia fans will be aware, was actually Bruce Montgomery, who wrote the music for the Carry On films) for his don detective Gervase Fen and perhaps Margery Allingham's Albert Campion series. However I think it's reasonable to assume that all or most of those would've read at least The Mystery Of The Yellow Room and probably Lupin et al. So Kit is writing these books in a long, distinguished tradition, although it's one that appeared to have become forgotten and at which critics have always turned up their noses. "Oh come on!" they whine, "the plots are absurd!" Since when has that been a bad thing? Dickens didn't exactly go in for realism plot-wise, did he? Nor did Shakespeare, come to that. Not everything needs to be totally true-to-life, indeed the world and literature would be much duller places if all fiction were "literary" (a twentieth century invention, in any case). Anyway, it is nice to see good writers giving us stories of this kind once again and they also have a lot to offer. This genre tends to draw a great deal on the back alleys of history rather than the main thoroughfares. The Victoria Vanishes, for instance, has a great deal to do with the history of London's public houses, and this is something that needs preserving given that it's reasonable to assume that the smoking ban will kill off a very large number of them over the next few years and will render those that survive unrecognisable. Whether you think that's a good thing or a bad one (and I know which side I'm on) I don't think there's much doubt that this is the case.

The B&M books also do a good job of picking up on the present as well as the past. Book four, Ten-Second Staircase, is one of the finest in the series, featuring a murderer who goes gallivanting around London dressed as a Highwayman, killing would-be or minor celebrities. Book three, Seventy-Seven Clocks, the last one to have part of the plot actually set in the past (the early 1970s), deals with banking, amongst other things. The second in the series, The Water Room, deals with local politics and the gentrification of one area of London after another, and also has some wonderful stuff set underneath London. Each of the novels homes in on a certain piece of London's own mythology, an endless source of fascination for writers for the whole history of the novel and beyond.

I remember picking up Full Dark House in a bookshop when it was first published in hardback and there was something about its cover that spoke to me, I picked it up and it just sounded like my kind of thing. I've bought each of the sequels immediately upon publication and devoured them very quickly, gleaning immense entertainment from them. I do hope that Kit does relent and do some more – he has, after all, followed in the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by alluding to other cases from B&M's long, long past and, as we know that their careers stretched over at least 60 or so years, there'd be nothing to stop him filling him some of the numerous gaps. The books are just enormous fun, as well as being packed with some wonderfully arcane stuff. Having finished the sixth and, at least for now, last of them I rather think I might treat myself to reading the whole series through again from the beginning at some point quite soon. In any case, The Victoria Vanishes is out now in hardback and the other five are, I think, all now published in paperback. I should probably whet your appetites by saying that the title of the last book comes from a pub outside which a tipsy Bryant sees a murder victim moments before her demise but which is gone – the pub, not the victim – next morning when he returns, although in the end that's not the real mystery at issue).

Kit, sorry, Christopher Fowler's website can be found here and all the books are available... well, in bookshops, obviously.

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