Bryant & May – The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler
I guess many readers will recognise the situation of becoming aware of a new series of books you think you’d like; not quite getting round to reading them; and then suddenly finding the series has reached the tenth book and you haven’t even got started on them yet! That happened to me with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series: I’ve been circling them for ages, thinking they sounded very much my kind of thing, but I just haven’t been in the right place at the right time to start them!
So I was delighted when I was contacted by the publishers of the series to ask if I’d like to review the latest volume, “The Burning Man” (out today), and also take part in a blog tour. A little Q&A session with the author should appear here in April (watch this space!) but in the meantime, let’s get to know Messrs. Bryant and May!
Fowler’s website has a useful potted history of the detectives: “Arthur Bryant and John May are Golden Age Detectives in a modern world. They head the Peculiar Crimes Unit, London’s most venerable specialist police team, a division founded during the Second World War to investigate cases that could cause national scandal or public unrest. Originally based above a London tube station, the technophobic, irascible Bryant and smooth-talking modernist John May head a team of equally unusual misfits who are just as likely to commit crimes as solve them.” The site itself is well worth a visit and Fowler has an interesting blog too.
“The Burning Man” finds the detecting duo juggling a number of issues; for the action is set in the middle of anti-banker riots and protests (a scenario familiar to UK readers over recent years), and as well as watching the regular London police trying to contain things, the PCU is trying to deal with administrative interference from above; its members are having a variety of hassles in their personal lives; and Arthur Bryant is behaving even more erratically than he normally seems to. But then things get a little more dramatic, as an arson attack on a bank kills a homeless man; and what seems initially like an accident suddenly looks like murder. As a further series of fire-related killings take place, Bryant & May plus their team must struggle not only to get hold of the case, but then to track down the killer, while London seems to be falling apart around them. And all does not seem quite well with Arthur Bryant…
I was hoping to enjoy this book, but I hadn’t expected to like it quite so much! Bryant & May are a perfect team; sparking off each other, supporting each other and prone to flashes of inspiration. The supporting team of the PCU are beautifully drawn, all with a back story waiting for me to discover it (!), and the book is full of some real laugh-out-loud humour. But it’s also dark in places, with the seamier side of London and modern life making itself felt. What was a real joy for me was the fact that the book didn’t give in to the current trend of detailed descriptions of gratuitous violence against women. There were nasty killings, yes, but they were never dwelt upon in a prurient manner, and the threat was real but not ghastly.
Arthur Bryant has a brilliant (if somewhat erratic) mind and seems to solve cases through a mixture of erudition and intuition. He often seems to be rambling on and on about something that’s really not relevant to the case, displaying a wonderfully arcane knowledge of London and its history, but actually he has more of a grasp on the case than anybody else. The relationship between Bryant and his colleague John May (slightly younger, a bit of a ladies’ man) is deftly portrayed and they obviously understand each other well after a lifetime of working together.
The rebellious streak in the two detectives is appealing, and the constant stress they cause their (notional) superior Raymond Land (the Unit’s chief) is very, very funny. There’s also room for the subtler emotions too, as Bryant strikes up a tenuous friendship with the young son of a suspect. Although the intention is really to try to find out about the father’s movements, in the end Bryant brings a new dimension to the lad’s restricted life, and has some unexpected moments himself. The city of London itself is a major element in the plot, and I would guess that Christopher Fowler has a great love of the place himself. The book conveys a wonderful sense of the long and strange history of the city, and the sheer oddness of some of the things that have happened there.
“The Burning Man” was a delight from start to finish; very much my sort of crime book, with an ensemble cast, a vividly portrayed setting, a wonderfully twisty plot (which I didn’t guess) and the kind of writing that pulls you in and totally involves you. I really wish I’d come to this series earlier so I could have followed the daring duo through their career; but at least I’ve now discovered them, so I can have the very great pleasure of going back through the books and reading up on their best cases! :)
(For younger readers or those outside the UK who might not know, Bryant and May were a match-producing company for many years; so “The Burning Man” is quite an apt title for a mystery investigated by the two detectives!)