Blazing riots besiege London following a banking scandal, and during one of them a homeless man gets killed. When he’s followed by another victim, and another, all of whom killed brutally with fire, the Peculiar Crimes Unit with the elderly, eccentric but effective Arthur Bryant and John May gets in on the action. With his unorthodox methods, forays into London’s history and varied assembled team, Bryant focuses on finding the killer – before he loses himself.
I had the privilege to interview author Christopher Fowler about this, the twelfth book in the popular Bryant and May series. It was my first – so please forgive stupidity when I’ve missed out on important things from earlier in the series! Here’s my quick review and the interview:
I largely enjoyed this book. It was pacy and gripping, and I loved the setting of London – and particularly Kings Cross, which is where I live. It was fun being able to recognise streets and learn bits of London history that I’d not heard before.
The characters, too, were varied and curious. In this book Bryant is definitely the main man; I was a little disappointed not to know May so well – but my guess is he gets more page time in other books. But the rest of the team, too, were fleshed out well and had their own story arcs. It reminded me of our detective style TV shows that are focussed around the team rather than the people involved in the crime, whereas I think I prefer to focus in on the people affected a bit more. It makes the crime less human, more of a puzzle to solve.
Ultimately I think this let the book down a bit for me. I would have enjoyed a bit more of the plot, suspects and victims rather than focussing so much on the team – though perhaps this is a result of jumping in on book twelve rather than journeying with them the whole way through. I was very proud of myself though… because I DID GUESS WHO DID IT!!
So I can see a lot of people would love it, but I wasn’t the biggest fan – though I enjoyed experiencing it and getting the chance to interview the author! Here goes:
I’m a newbie to the world of Bryant and May, but one of the things that attracted me to this book was the inclusion of elderly protagonists. What made you decide on that age group for your main characters?
The glib answer is so that they wouldn’t have to spend half their time sorting out their love lives or fighting, but I wanted them to be disrespectful while still being respected. You don’t see that much in detective stories.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this novel was the portrayal of London. I found myself walking down streets and recognizing them from scenes in the book as well as the other way round. How is your inspiration process tied to our amazing capital city?
I was born in London and spent most of my life walking it, which means talking to people, which means getting ideas for stories. It’s amazing how many people really want to tell you about their personal experience of London. Many have extraordinary stories, but no-one to tell them to.
To me the set up of the PCU and the way they operate was reminiscent of the way TV shows present their stories, and there are lots of very visual moments throughout the book. How do you think your background in television affects your writing?
My years in films made sure I could always place an encounter in the right location. It’s like having a memory bank full of images. Also, I went to art college for a while, and have always thought visually. I worry that central London is blanding out now, and has fewer spots which are unique.
This book is a vast array of information, plots and subplots, characters, history and London knowhow. How on earth do you practically get started on something so colossal?
LOL – I don’t think of it that way! When I was a kid I drew comics with insanely inventive, over-complex plots, and I also read/ saw movies/ went to plays every chance I got, so that I could understand stories. I started young!
How do you make sure the mystery is the right balance between baffling and accessible?
Very occasionally even I don’t know how it will end. Sometimes I work it back from the ending, but there’s an old rule which insists you must play fair with the reader, so the clues are all there if you read carefully. I can be quite crafty about this (ie. ‘Off The Rails’, which nobody guessed!)
Do you have any ideas on how you want readers to come away from this novel thinking or feeling?
I want them to feel they’ve spent time with some interesting people in an interesting place. It’s not so much about the plot (although that’s important, obviously) but about good characters. I actually like Bryant & May as people, so I love writing about them.
Twelve books is a long time to stick with characters! Have you been frustrated with them at any points?
When I got to ‘The Memory of Blood’ I knew I had found a great snippet of London history. It was born from my discovery that London had a grand guignol theatre like the one in Paris – I even found the scripts for the sinister plays that were performed there, and thought it would make a great basis for a novel. But it was ages before I could make it work right. Then I remembered Bryant’s taste for the theatrical, and it fell into place.
And this book is the very last of the Bryant and May series! Any clues on what’s up next?
Did I say it was the last book in the series? Read the final page. One of their biggest twist endings is yet to come!