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Christopher Fowler

HALL OF MIRRORS . . . Between the covers

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HOMIf a more extraordinary duo of fictional detectives exists than Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May, then I have yet to discover them. The peculiar pair return in Hall of Mirrors for their fifteenth outing, and this time not only are they far from their beloved London, but we see a pair of much younger coppers on their beat in the 1960s. Fowler’s take on the period is typified by each of the fifty chapters of the novel bearing the title of a classic pop hit. We are also reminded of the strange fashions of the day.

“Two young men in Second World War army uniforms painted with ‘Ban The Bomb’ slogans were arguing with a pair of Chelsea Pensioners who clearly didn’t take kindly to military outfits being worn by trendy pacifists. They were briefly joined by a girl wearing a British sailor’s uniform with a giant iridescent fish on her head.”

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In attempt to keep them out of trouble, our heroes are given the task of being minders to an important witness in a fraud trial, but Monty Hatton-Jones is due at a country weekend party deep in rural Kent, and so John and Arthur must accompany him to Tavistock Hall. What follows is a delicious take on the Golden Age country house mystery, with improbable murders, secret passages, an escaped homicidal maniac and suspects galore. Things are complicated by nearby military manoeuvres involving the British army and their French counterparts. Fowler (above) reprises the great gag from Dr Strangelove – “Gentlemen – you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” Captain Debney, the British Commanding Officer is having a bad day.

“The menu for tonight’s hands Across The Water dinner has already gone up the Swanee. We had terrible trouble getting hold of courgettes, and now I hear there’s no custard available. I don’t want anything else going wrong. These are international war games. We can’t afford to have anyone hurt.”

The urbane John May is quite at home in the faded grandeur of Tavistock Hall, but Arthur is like a fish out of water. He also has an aversion to the countryside.

“It appeared to be the perfect Kentish evening, pink with mist and fresh with the scent of the wet grass. Bryant looked at it with a jaundiced eye. There was mud everywhere, the cows stank, and were all those trees really necessary? As a child he had been terrified of the bare, sickly elm in his street with a branch that scarped at his bedroom window like a witch’s hand and sent him under the blankets.”

 As usual with the B & M books, the jokes come thick and fast, but we are reminded that Fowler is a perceptive and eloquent commentator on the human condition. Arthur investigates the local parish church as its rector, Revd Trevor Patethric is a house guest – and suspect.

“Bryant pushed open the church door and entered. He had never felt comfortable in the houses of God, associating them with gruelling rites of childhood: saying farewell to dead grandfathers, and the observance of distant, obscure ceremonies involving hushed prayers, peculiarly phrased bible passages, muffled tears and shamed repentance.”

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 Eventually, of course, the pair – mostly through Arthur’s twisted thought processes – solve the crimes. Prior to revealing his theories on the murder to the assembled guests, however, Bryant has a slight misfortune with a missing painting hidden in a very unswept chimney. Covered in soot, he somehow lacks the gravitas of a Poirot or a Marple.

“Bryant had made a desultory attempt to wipe his face, but the result was more monstrous than before. He rose before them now, a lunatic lecturer in the physics of murder.”

Reading a crime novel shouldn’t be about being educated, but Hall of Mirrors teaches us many things. Those who didn’t already know will learn that Christopher Fowler is a brilliant writer. He is, in my view, out on his own in the way he weaves a magic carpet from a dazzling array of different threads: there is uniquely English humour, the sheer joy of the eccentricities of our language and landscape, labyrinthine plotting, and an array of arcane cultural references which will surely have Betjeman beaming down from heaven. Those of us who, smugly perhaps, consider ourselves as old Bryant & May hands will also now know the origins of Arthur’s malodorous scarf and also his cranky, clanky Mini.

Amidst the gags, the fizzing dialogue and the audacious plot twists Fowler waves his magic wand, and with the lightest of light touches dusts a page near the very end with poignancy and great compassion. Look out for the section that ends:

“Bryant looked in his mirror to try and catch another glimpse of them, but they had disappeared, ghosts of a London yet to come.”

 And do you want to know the best five words of the entire book? I’ll tell you:

Bryant and May Will Return

Hall of Mirrors is published by Quercus, and is available from 22nd March.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Hall of Mirrors by Christopher Fowler

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Have you ever heard of Chip Taylor? No, me neither until I researched this post. He is still with us, and was born James Wesley Voight in 1940 and, yes, he is the brother of John and uncle to the fragrant Angelina Jolie. His claim to fame? He penned the immortal line (if you’re a fan of The Troggs, that is)

“Wild Thing – you make my heart sing..”

 Some things, wild or otherwise, do make my heart sing. For example, in no particular order, the first heady sip from a glass of the luxury single malt, Lagavulin. Hearing, via Test Match Special, the unique subdued hum of thousands of spectators at Lords. Fishing on my favourite water in the tiny French hamlet of Aizelles, and feeling the line scream off the reel as a fat carp takes my bait. Snuggling in an armchair with my little granddaughter as we watch yet another re-run of a classic Tom and Jerry cartoon. And – this one is special – opening a parcel to reveal a new Bryant & May book by one of my favourite authors – Christopher Fowler.

HOMThe dust jackets of the Bryant & May novels are a work of art in themselves, but between the covers is where the true genius lies. Arthur Bryant and John May are detectives working for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, an imaginary department of London’s Metropolitan Police. Their adventures take them mostly to curious and forgotten corners of London where the past is just below the modern surface. Fowler has many talents as a writer, not least of which is his comedic talent. He is a direct descendant of English humourists such as George and Weedon Grossmith and HV Morton, and the jokes come thick and fast amid the serious business of solving murders or strange crimes.

The new book? It’s called Hall of Mirrors, and takes us back to 1969. Our intrepid pair are sent to Tavistock Hall to investigate dark deeds on a country house weekend. I’ve already started to read the book, so look out for a full review very soon. The publicist, in full alliteration mode, warns us to expect ‘murder, madness and mayhem in the mansion,’ but me? I’m looking forward to meeting the one-armed brigadier, Nigel ‘Fruity’ Metcalf!

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COMPETITION … Win STRANGE TIDE by Christopher Fowler

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I COUNT MYSELF GENUINELY LUCKY to be sent novels by publishers and authors who are looking for coverage of their books. Any reviewer will tell you the same thing. Inevitably, it is impractical to keep all the books once they have been read and reviewed. I pass on books to like-minded friends, or take a batch to the charity shops in town. But some contemporary books I guard with my life, and they will leave my house over my dead body.

7061d-chrisfowlerThe Urban Dictionary tells me that a “keeper” is is a colloquial phrase derived from “for keeps,” which means worth keeping forever. I have an eclectic list of CriFi keepers which include such diverse talents as Walter Mosley, Phil Rickman, Harry Bingham, Eva Dolan and Jim Kelly. But top of my list is the wonderful Bryant and May series by Christopher Fowler (left). So, rest assured, I would not be putting this lovely new paperback up as a prize if I did not already have my hardback copy in pride of place on my bookshelf.

ST back033STRANGE TIDE is set, as you may expect, in London, but it’s a London few of us will ever see. It’s a world of forgotten alleyways, strange histories, abandoned amusement arcades, inexplicable legends and murder – always murder. Strange Tide was my book of the year for 2016, and you can read my review of it by following this link.

If you would like to win the paperback version of Strange Tide, then answer a simple question. Fans of the series will know the christian names of the two aged detectives. So, if you think their names are Reg Bryant and Michael May, then send me an email with Reg, Michael in the subject box. The email address is below.

fullybooked2016@yahoo.com

Competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Wednesday 31st May 2017.
• One entry per competitor.• Entries accepted from Europe, America, Asia and Australasia (basically anywhere!)
• The winner will be drawn out of the (digital) hat.

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WILD CHAMBER … Between the covers

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WILD CHAMBER by CHRISTOPHER FOWLER

When a woman is found strangled in one of those little gated parks within a square of houses, unique to London, the Metropolitan Police’s Peculiar Crimes Unit swings into action. Led – and sometimes misled – by its two extremely senior detectives, John Bryant and Arthur May, the other members of the PCU realise that they are faced with an outdoor version of the crime fiction staple – the locked room mystery.

51o95c8FyjL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_Other murders follow, and each has been committed in one of the parks and gardens – the Wild Chambers – which are scattered throughout central London. Are the gardens linked, like some erratically plotted ley line? Why are the murders connected to a tragic freak accident in a road tunnel near London Bridge? Why are the murder sites speckled with tiny balls of lead?

For Arthur Bryant – and his creator – London’s past is like a great sleeping creature buried beneath the layers of the city’s history. Sometimes it stirs in its slumber, and the vibrations are felt far above, by those who wish to feel. On other occasions, it sighs, and its breath stirs the leaves in the trees of memory, but only people like Bryant, for whom the present is just a footnote in the chapter of life, can hear the rustling.

Bryant’s unique relationship with London’s vibrant and violent past is described thus:

“London’s lost characters were to him close companions, from the bodysnatchers of Blenheim Street to the running footman of Mayfair and the rat man of Tottenham Court Road. He saw Queen Elizabeth I dancing alone on rainy days in Whitehall Palace
and female barbers shaving beards in Seven Dials, but he could barely recall his mother’s face.”

Fowler came up with the brainwave of having Bryant undertake a course of experimental chemical therapy to treat a life-threatening condition. He recovered, but the drugs have left him prone to out-of-body experiences. These – and here is The Fairy Feller’s masterstroke – allow him to have occasional meetings with pivotal figures from London’s past, such as Sir William Gilbert and Samuel Pepys. Such is the spell that Fowler casts, that these seem perfectly natural and without artifice.

Fowler is, among other things, a comic genius. He mines the rich and productive seam of peculiarly English comedy which gave us George and Weedon Grossmith,
J B ‘Beachcomber’ Morton, the sublime pretensions of Anthony Aloysius Hancock and the surreal world of Basil Fawlty. The book is full of great gags and very good one-liners, such as the world view of a British Library researcher who is consulted for his erudition:

“I expect my libraries and churches to be like my ex-wife:
unlovely, unforgiving, and underheated when you’re inside them.”

Chris-FowlerAlong the way, Fowler (right) has the eagle eye of John Betjeman in the way that he recognises the potency of ostensibly insignificant brand names and the way that they can instantly recreate a period of history, or a passing social mood. At one point, Bryant tries to pay for a round of drinks in a pub:

“Bryant emptied his coat pocket onto the bar counter and spread out seventeen and sixpence three farthings in pre 1973 money, two tram tickets and a Benwell’s Aerial Bombshell left over from a long-past Guy Fawkes night.”

Sometimes Fowler throws in a literary reference that is tailor made for the job. When John May exclaims:

“God, it’s as cold as Keats’s owl in here..”

… I had to reach for my Oxford Book of English Verse to confirm a vague schoolboy memory of Keats;

“St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold”

Fowler has his own view of the modern world, and he occasionally treats himself to the luxury of having a character give voice to it. One of Bryant’s eccentric acquaintances lets rip:

“I’m staying where no one who’s interested in singing competitions or baking shows will ever venture. I pray that when we find life on another planet it turns out to be a lot more fun than ours and that they have relaxed immigration laws. I really do prefer 1752. If we’d had the internet back then people would have spent their days looking at Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, not shots of Justin Bieber’s dick.”

Such is the rich entertainment that Fowler serves up – bravura writing, poignancy, compassion, complex plotting, biting humour and a unique view of London’s landscape – that it doesn’t really matter who did what to whom, but he stays staunch and true to the crime fiction genre and gives us the answer to the intricate whoddunnit he has constructed. I have read all the previous Bryant and May novels, and this gem more than maintains the high standard Fowler has set for himself. If you love an intriguing murder plot, sparkling humour, wonderful scene-setting and brilliantly stylish writing, then get hold of a copy of this. You won’t be sorry. Wild Chamber is out now.

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ON MY SHELF 2017 … Leon, Fowler & Lovesey

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The good books come thick and fast at this time of year, and this week we have three very well known and justifiably popular authors. Each of the three has a long running series, each with its own passionate readership. The three authors between them have notched up an astonishing 57 novels featuring their lead characters. The three series have another common factor in that they are set in three of the world’s most beautiful cities – Venice, London and Bath.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti returns for another intriguing mystery set in his native Venice. Brunetti is feeling his age, and the constant pressure of the expectations of his bosses in La Questura has led to him making an error of judgment which threatens to derail his career. Rather like the football manager who substitutes a player before he can collect the second Yellow card, Brunetti’s wife insists he takes leave of absence, and packs him off to stay with a relative on the quiet and thinly populated island of Sant’Erasmo. But this, of course, is a crime thriller, and we all know that recuperating detectives always attract dark deeds. In this case it is the disappearance of Davide Casati, the caretaker of the house. Brunetti is drawn reluctantly but inevitably in the search for the man, and it soon becomes apparent that he would have had more rest if he’d stayed at home.

Earthly Remains is published by William Heinemann and will be available from 6th April.

OMS middleTo London, and most elderly pair of investigators currently still working. Existing fans of Arthur Bryant and John May have come to expect quirky humour, clever wordplay, an unrivaled knowledge of the topography and history of London, and a Betjeman-esque poetry of description which sometimes appears humdrum, but is often very profound.  Christopher Fowler loves jokes that involve popular culture and brand names, and readers of a certain age will know that even the naming of the two elderly investigators is a little gem of a joke. The cobwebby pair work for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, an esoteric (and purely fictional) branch of the Metropolitan Police. They are constantly under threat of being pensioned off, but their investigations always take them to  mysterious parts of London (usually entirely factual).  Arthur Bryant – as usual – baffles and exasperates  his colleagues, but in this tale his arcane knowledge of London helps the Unit solve the open air version of The Locked Room Mystery. The title? This is from Fowler’s erudite and entertaining website.

“London’s greenery is absurdly generous. There’s no way of avoiding it wherever you walk. London’s parks, woodlands, ancient forests, secret gardens, informal community parks, tended meadows, play areas, crescents, allotments, polygons, circuses, heaths and commons each have a different character. Add to these our obsession with back gardens (not places to be kept beautiful but somewhere messy to escape to) and you start to think that these ‘wild chambers’ are there to stop families from going mad.”

Wild Chambers is published by Bantam Press, and is out in hardback on 23rd March.

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Peter-LoveseyThis week’s award for the most menacing title must go to Peter Lovesey (right) and his Somerset and Avon copper, Peter Diamond. More used to solving high profile murder cases, Diamond is not best pleased when he is called in to investigate an apparent motoring accident. Tragically, a police vehicle, speeding late at night to a possible crime scene, spins off the road, killing one of the officers. Hours later, Diamond discovers that the officer is not the only victim. On an adjacent embankment, undiscovered by the emergency teams, is the rider of a motorised trike. The man is close to death, but Diamond administers CPR successfully enough for the victim to be taken to hospital, where he remains in a critical condition. Diamond, however, is not able to sit back and bask in the warm knowledge that he has carried out a valuable public service. His bosses are desperate that the whole RTA  is not blamed on the police force, but what causes Diamond the most anxiety is the emerging likelihood that the man whose life he saved is almost certainly a serial killer.

Another One Dies Tonight came out in hardback in 2016, but will be available in paperback for the first time on 6th April.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2016 … The winner!

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THE FULLY BOOKED BEST BOOK OF 2016

We already have selections for Best Dialogue, Best Historical Novel, and Best Psychological Thriller. Next up came the awards for Best Non-UK Novel, Best Police Procedural and Best PI Novel. Now, though, it’s drum roll time, and this is the book which, for me, was the outstanding publication of 2016.

Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler

The Peculiar Crimes Unit is a kind of lost property facility for London’s Metropolitan Police. Orphan crimes, unsolved murders, unexplained disappearances – in short, investigations which would cost the cash-strapped Met Police valuable man hours are left on the doorstep of the PCU. Its two senior detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May are impossibly ancient but have an irreplaceable knowledge of London’s unique criminal history. The odd couple, particularly the apparently shambolic Bryant, have an almost visceral connection to the countless misdeeds committed on the capital’s ancient streets and lanes.

strange-tideBut all is not well. Arthur Bryant is physically sound enough, but his encyclopaedic mind is starting to betray him. He is suffering episodes of serious dislocation. He causes havoc in what he thinks is an academic library when he’s actually in the soft furnishings department of British Home Stores. While soaking up the ambiance of a Thames-side crime scene, all he can sense are the sights, sounds and smells of the early 20th century docks. John May and the more sprightly members of the PCU have to keep Arthur virtually under lock and key, for his own protection.

While trying to stop Arthur from wandering off and doing himself a mischief, the PCU team are investigating a bizarre death. A disturbed young woman has been found – drowned – chained to a concrete block on what had been an artificial Edwardian beach on a neglected section of the riverbank. She was several months pregnant, but her insouciant chancer of a boyfriend is innocent of both her demise and her impregnation. Why was there only one set of footprints leading towards the corpse?

As well as being among Britain’s best current crime writers, Fowler also carries the torch passed on by the great English humourists. With his gentle, quirky but needle sharp observations of the sheer daftness of the way we live now, he links hands with such writers as George and Weedon Grossmith, JB ‘Beachcomber’ Morton,  John Betjeman, Israel Zangwill and Colin Watson.

Behind the gags, the knowing cultural references, the ingenious plotting and the clever characterisations, we have Fowler’s unique take on London itself. No living writer save, perhaps, in their different ways, Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, knows London quite like Christopher Fowler. In other books in the series he has turned his expert eye on the theatres, the city’s lost rivers, and its medieval legends. The star of the show in Strange Tide is the River Thames itself. The crime is eventually solved, Arthur’s malaise is mostly cured, but the powerful river remains the city’s lifeblood. In a telling paragraph, Fowler reveals the deep, dark, blue centre of what he is about.

“…the metropolis is ultimately changeless. Its people remain the same because London is a state of mind. They do not make London. London makes them.”

Strange Tide is published by Doubleday.

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