For a good part of its long and curious history, it seems that The Peculiar Crimes Unit of London’s Metropolitan Police has been under threat. Civil servants and box-tickers without number have tried to close it down; it has endured bombs (courtesy of both the Luftwaffe and those closer to home); it has suffered plague and the eternal pestilence of whatever vile tobacco Arthur Bryant happens to stuffing into his pipe at any particular moment. The PCU has become:
“..like a flatulent elderly relative in a roomful of
millennials,a source of profound embarrassment..”
But now, yet another crisis seems to be the fatal straw that will break the back of the noble beast. Bryant’s partner John May (the sensible one) is on sick leave recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound. Mr B has gone AWOL (trying to have his memoirs published), and the office has been invaded by a tight lipped (and probably ashen-faced) emissary from the Home Office who has instructions to observe what he sees and then report back to Whitehall.
The PCU creaks into arthritic action when Arthur Bryant puts his literary ambitions on hold, and links three apparently random deaths. A Romanian bookseller’s shop is torched, and he dies in police custody; a popular and (unusually) principled politician is grievously wounded, apparently by a pallet of citrus fruit falling from a lorry; a well-connected campaigning celebrity is stabbed to death on the steps of a notable London church. For Bryant, the game is afoot, and he draws on his unrivaled knowledge of London’s arcane history to convince his colleagues that the killer’s business is far from finished. His colleagues? Regular B&M fans will be relieved to know that, in the words of the 1917 American song (melody by Sir Arthur Sullivan) “Hail, Hail – The Gang’s All Here!”
An intern in the PCU? Yes, indeed, and in the words of Raymond Land;
“You may have noticed there’s an unfamiliar name attached to the recipients at the top of the page. Sidney Hargreaves is a girl. She’s happy to be called either Sid or Sidney because her name is, I quote, ‘non gender specific in an identity-based profession.’ It’s not for me to pass comment on gender, I got lost somewhere between Danny la Rue and RuPaul.”
There are more deaths and Arthur Bryant is convinced that the killings are linked to the London churches immortalised in the old nursery rhyme, with its cryptic references:
But what links the victims to the killer? Beneath the joyous anarchy Arthur Bryant creates in the incomprehending digital world of modern policing, something very, very dark is going on. Fowler gives us hints, such as in this carefully selected verse between two sections of the book:
“The past is round us, those old spires
That glimmer o’er our head;
Not from the present are their fires,
Their light is from the dead.”
Also, underpinning the gags and joyfully sentimental cultural references there are moments of almost unbearable poignancy such as the moment when the two old men meet, as they always have done, on Waterloo Bridge, and think about loves won and lost and how things might have been.
There is no-one quite like Christopher Fowler among modern authors. He distills the deceptively probing gaze of John Betjeman, the sharp humour of George and Weedon Grossmith, the narrative drive of Arthur Conan Doyle and a knowledge of London’s darker corners and layers of history quite the equal of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, The result? A spirit that is as delicious as it is intoxicating. Oranges and Lemons is published by Doubleday and is out now.
More about the unique world of Arthur Bryant and John May can be found here, while anyone who would like to learn more about the origin of the rather sinister verse quoted earlier should click on the picture of its author, below, Letitia Elizabeth Landon.