First Sentence: On a desolate rain-battered London midnight, the members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit went looking for a killer.
London has many private gardens, accessible only to the residents who live around them. The gardener also has a key but doesn’t expect to find the body of a woman who’d taken her dog for a walk. She has been strangled and neatly laid out on the path, her dog missing, and the garden locked before the gardener’s arrival. A second such body is found in a public park. At risk are more murders, the city’s parks being closed to the public, and the PUC disbanded. The clock is ticking.
An aerial chase, a traffic jam, a boy’s death and a man whose life implodes. This is an opening which captures one’s attention.
That Fowler uses a memo to provide a cast of characters is both helpful and clever. That the list includes “Crippen, staff cat,” and the subsequent memo brings readers up to date on the situation at the aptly-named Peculiar Crimes Unit truly sets the tone for what follows. Fowler’s books are not one’s normal police procedural, as the characters, particularly those of Arthur Bryant and John May, are anything but what one would normally find. Fowler gives us something unique with present-day crimes overlain with an education into obscure historical facts and writing which increases one’s vocabulary. But never fear; this book is anything but dry or boring.
Fowler is skilled at juxtaposing historic London over that of the present day in a way that contributes to the plot. Part of that is an explanation as to how Bryant became a detective. Fowler creates evocative descriptions—“The wind was high in the trees, breathing secrets through the branches.—and observations—“Looking down on King’s Cross you’d have noticed an odd phenomenon: Every other roof was covered in white frost, forming a patchwork quilt, an indicator of which properties were owned by overseas investors and which had warm families inside.” But yes, unfortunately, there are also quite a few completely unnecessarily portents.
It is hard to say which is more enjoyable; the cast of strange and fascinating characters of Bryant’s acquaintance, the vast abundance of arcane and historical information—who knew it was Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote the music to “Onward Christian Soldiers--, the members of the PUC itself, or the plot which brings all these facets together into a perfect gem of a book with a well-done plot twist. We are even given a definition as to what is a murder mystery—“A murder mystery,’ she told Bryant…’is an intellectual exercise, a game between reader and writer in which a problem is precisely stated, elaborately described, and surprisingly solved.”—and Fowler does just that.
“Bryant & May: Wild Chamber” is a murder mystery in the best sense. All the clues are provided if we but see them. The best part of the book is the very last line, but that one will have to read for themselves.
BRYANT & MAY: WILD CHAMBER (Pol Proc-Bryant & May-London-Contemp) – VG+
Fowler, Christopher – 14th in series
Bantam – December 2017