Monday, December 14, 2015

Bryant & May and the Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

First Sentence: “Before I start, can I ask you to look around at this beautiful building?”

It’s the week before Guy Fawkes, and London’s banks are under siege. Although started by the scandal of a corrupt financier, the violence is growing and now includes murder by fire. But the death doesn’t look accidental to the Bryant and May of the PUC, especially not when a second fire also kills.

NOTE: If you read an e-version, please ensure you start with “Excerpt from a Speech…” rather than just at Chapter 1.

Fowler is one author from whom I look forward to reading his prologues as they are always a treat. In this case, with the “Excerpt from a Speech,” we learn a great deal about the history of London and the PUC, and a wonderful internal memo from Raymond Land, who actually think he runs the PUC.

The ensemble cast of characters, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is one of the most unusual and intriguing one will find. Although we meet them in short order from the beginning, Fowler doesn’t weigh the reader down with background information all at once. Rather, we come to know the characters throughout the story. The interplay amongst them, as well as their physical descriptions, makes them very alive and real to us, causing the reader to truly care about what happens to each of them, including the more secondary characters. 

Dialogue makes such a difference, and Fowler knows how to write dialogue—“Even after all these years, your every action remains a mystery to me….And why you had to follow him into a theatre of all places—“ “He was a junkie doing some speed-acquisition of tourists’ wallets, John. I took one look at him and knew he would test positive for stupidity.” And later—“Look at the state of you…” “Do you always boil a saucepan of sprouts for at least two hours?” Bryant asked. “What?” said May, thrown. “No.” “Good, then you’re not my mother.”

At the same time, there are many passages that cause one to stop and consider—“In every decade and generation,…one thing united us: obstinacy. We’re a paradoxical mix of conformity and rebellion, privacy and bravado. We will not do as we are told. That’s how it always was.”

The historic details and information are fascinating and add wonderful depth to the story. One can’t help but respect an author who doesn’t write down to their readers. Rather, there are times when one finds oneself in search of a dictionary; and that’s a nice thing.

There are so many facets to this book: the history of Guy Fawkes, protests by “anonymous” against the 1 percent, a theory about Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch,” Jack the Ripper and the importance of honoring the victims, and so much more. Yet it all ties together with the base of a very human story.

Bryant & May and The Burning Man” includes excellent building of suspense, a dramatic climax, and well-executed twists right up to the resolution. In the end, though, it is a story of people, our present society, and relationships.

Fowler, Christopher – 12th in series
Bantam - December 2015

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