Bryant & May Mysteries – ‘Full Dark House’ by Christopher Fowler

19 08 2010

'Full Dark House' by Christopher Fowler, 416 pp, Bantam, ISBN: 0553815520

[Reviewed by Sharon Ring]

Right, where were we? In my last blog post, I told you how I came to read the sixth book in Christopher Fowler‘s Bryant & May Mysteries. It was a good read but I felt I needed to go back and start the series as it was intended. And so I did just that. I think I may have also mentioned I’m a little in love with this series. This, then, is not just any old review: this is a Bryant & May review, an account of my burgeoning love affair with Messrs. Arthur Bryant and John May.

I don’t do crime fiction, not strictly speaking anyway. I can appreciate a finely turned detective novel that keeps me guessing to the end and I certainly don’t mind crime fiction that includes an element of horror. Generally though, I find crime fiction to be lacking in heart. By its very nature, all that detective malarkey can be quite cold and clinical, even if all the detecting is being done by a maverick cop or unconventional private eye. Logic is followed, the narrative is linear and that doesn’t excite me.

Full Dark House has that elusive element though – it has heart – and that sets it apart from much crime fiction.

The story begins with the death of one of the partners, Arthur, in an explosion at the Peculiar Crimes Unit offices. Arthur and his partner, John May, have been working with the Peculiar Crimes Unit since the Second World War: there is closeness and camaraderie between the two old men and John is left devastated by the loss of his old friend. John begins looking into the explosion and finds his partner had been dabbling in the past, digging up elements of their first case together. The reader is then drawn into a series of analepses, learning about the original case as well as the current investigation by May into his friend’s death. It’s a common enough trick employed by authors to provide a backdrop to the narrative but Fowler uses the trick to provide outstanding richness and an extra layer to the story.

Bryant & May’s inaugural case runs alongside the present investigation. Nothing is rushed here as the two mysteries are expertly presented for the readers to work out. The reader is, quite literally, getting two stories for the price of one. That extra layer comes from Fowler using the first case flashbacks as a means to define the relationship between the two men and to give substance to their long history as the backbone of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. It is exceptionally well crafted and makes Full Dark House by far one of the strongest introductions to a series of crime novels I’ve ever read.

So, there are quite a few books in the Bryant & May Mysteries. It’d be a shame to use these reviews just to tell you, in non-spoiler fashion, vaguely what transpires. I think what I’d prefer to do is focus on one particular aspect of the series as each novel gets reviewed. As it’s the first book in the series and this is where we find out how the partnership of Bryant & May came to be, then this is what I’d like to focus on right now.

Arthur Bryant and John May meet as colleagues at the Peculiar Crimes Unit during the Blitz. As Fowler tells us, prior to the men’s first meeting, “it was a good place to forge a friendship”. Neither man has gone off to fight the war. Bryant’s health issues, a special dispensation from the Port of London Authority and another, as yet unexplained reason have brought him to work in the unit. May is waiting on confirmation of a war-related post to come up, code-breaker, and has been sent to work alongside Bryant until then.

The two men, despite being mismatched in so many ways, quickly develop a strong rapport as they enter their first case, a suspicious death at a London theatre. Fowler uses the case to show us just how these men’s minds work. John May is a logical man, following leads and procedure as he’s been trained to do: he’s also a bit of a lady’s man, indulging in a brief dalliance with one of the theatre girls. This is perfectly offset by Bryant’s tangential and anarchic ways: he is gifted with insight into all things weird and sees clues where nobody else can, sweeping procedure and paperwork aside in his desire to get at the truth of things.

The friendship between these two men runs deep and true: it would have been easy to lapse into schmaltz when telling their story but Fowler keeps the narrative sharp and witty throughout, giving depth to the characters both as individuals and as a team. There is a real sense of history here, not just in how long they’ve known one another but also in the intensity of the relationship and how interwoven their thinking has become.

Well, that’s Full Dark House. Next up for review will be The Water Room along with some thoughts on the grand old city of London.

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3 responses

29 09 2010
Bryant & May Mysteries – ‘The Water Room’ by Christopher Fowler «

[…] Water Room is as well-plotted and delivered a novel as the first book in the series, Full Dark House. Having given us a thorough grounding in the creation of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, introducing us […]

1 11 2010
Michael Stone

OK, it took me a while, but I finally read Full Dark House, and I’m glad I did. It was slow paced – maybe too slow for the first half, and I didn’t care for the numerous descriptions of the interior workings of the theatre – but by the end of the book I was all but cheering for Messrs Bryant and May. Ingenious stuff!

Thanks for putting me on to this series!

6 11 2010
Sharon Ring

You’re most welcome, Michael. Glad you enjoyed the book.

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