It has been, as the song goes, a long and winding road. Nearly 1000 miles, or thereabouts of rolling English highway and we are nearing the end. Just two more stops, and we will be back where we started, In London. Yes, there are places and authors we might have visited; Trevor Wood’s Newcastle, John Harvey’s Nottingham and Phil Rickman’s Hereford, to name just three. But both writer and reader can suffer fatigue, so this journey is what it is. Our penultimate stop-over is Brighton, seemingly a place of bizarre contrasts. There is the elegant watering place beloved of the Prince Regent, and the cheeky seaside town beloved of London day trippers, but with a scary undercurrent immortalised by Graham Greene. There is the contemporary Brighton, a place where outlandish political and social fads make its counterparts in California look reactionary. But our Brighton is a much sunnier place. We are in the 1960s, sex had just about been invented, mobile ‘phones were undreamt of in anyone’s philosophy, and a young man called Colin Crampton is the ace crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle.
Colin Crampton is the inspired creation of former journalist Peter Bartram, and I do wonder if Colin is, perhaps, a younger version of Peter, and I would like to think so. Peter, from, my online dealings with him, is a genial and astute fellow with a broad sense of humour, and someone with a fund of nostalgic cultural references from days gone by. In brief, Colin is as sharp as a tack, has a gorgeous Australian girlfriend called Shirley, vrooms around Brighton in his sports car, and his boss, deputy editor Frank Figgis, is permanently wreathed in a cloud of Woodbines smoke. The books are simply delightful. Escapist, maybe, comfort reading, probably, but superbly crafted and endlessly entertaining – yes, yes, yes. If you click the graphic below, a link will open where you can read reviews of the Crampton of The Chronicle series, and also features by Peter on the background to some of his stories.The author’s photograph contains a link to his own website.
LONDON CALLING! And the voices are none other than those of Arthur Bryant and John May – and their creator, Christopher Fowler. Bryant & May are, of course, an in-joke from the very start. More elderly readers will remember the iconic brand of matches so familiar to those of us who grew up the middle and later years of the 20th century.
Fowler devised a brilliant concept. We have two coppers who began their investigative careers during Hitler’s war. One, Arthur Bryant, is an intellectual iconoclast, a fount of obscure knowledge, be it of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Patagonia or the inner regions of the Hindu Kush. His expertise, however, is London. There is not a hidden river, an execution site, an ancient drovers’ trackway or site of an old graveyard that Arthur doesn’t have logged somewhere in his noggin. His colleague, John May, is slightly younger, but has adapted to the passing years. He wears decent suits, chooses conciliation rather than confrontation, and retains the razor sharp mind of his younger years. He is resolutely and remorselessly devoted to Arthur Bryant, and such is Fowler’s mastery of human chemistry that we know one could never exist without the other.
There were nineteen B & M novels, beginning with Full Dark House in 2003, plus a quartet of graphic novels and short story collections. I say ‘were’, because although Christopher Fowler (left) is still with us, those who have read London Bridge Is Falling Down (2021) will know – and I am sorry if this is a spoiler – that old age and infirmity finally catches up with the venerable pair of detectives. Where to start to talk about this series? The author himself is, as far as I can judge, a modern and cosmopolitan fellow, but his love – and knowledge – of London is all embracing. Christopher Fowler is a one-off in contemporary writing, and completely individual, but speaking as an elderly chap with many years of reading behind me, I can best put him in context with great English writers of the last 150 years or so by looking at various aspects of the novels.
There is humour in the books, plenty of it and – as you might guess – it’s very English. Imagine a chain of writers which goes back to Victorian times, starting perhaps with Israel Zangwill and the Grossmith brothers. The torch is carried onwards by Wodehouse, JV Morton and – with a more abrasive edge – by Waugh. Tom Sharpe is largely forgotten now, but his anarchic view of English customs and behaviour fits in well.
Now the city of London itself. Imagine a writer with the nostalgic fondness of Betjeman, blended with the darker imagination of writers like Ackroyd and Sinclair, and you will find that Christopher Fowler fits the bill perfectly. He makes us aware that the streets of his home town are like a stage, with troupes of actors down the ages acting out their dramas, each set of footsteps eventually fading to give way to the next, but each leaving something indelible behind, eternally available for those with ears to listen
Let’s not forget, though, that this is crime fiction, and the B&M stories have a strong vein of the Golden Age running through them, particularly with the ‘impossible’ crimes. Not content with mere locked rooms, Fowler takes us into a world where pubs vanish of the face off the earth and an 18th century highwayman commits murder in an art gallery. We started our journey in Derek Raymond’s London, with its drab streets, mean hearts, cruelty and violence. The streets walked by Bryant and May certainly have their dark corners, but Christopher Fowler fills them with joyful quirks of history, ghosts (mainly benevolent) and a sense of gleeful iconoclasm.
For reviews and features about the Bryant and May novels,
click the image below.