The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

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Written by Christopher Fowler — London is a city under siege, its angry population taking to the streets to protest at yet another banking scandal which has spewed out onto an already jaded political landscape. In the run up to 5 November, Guy Fawkes Night, thousands of people spill out, their faces hidden behind masks. Violence erupts, protestors and police clash. The next morning a young homeless man is discovered dead, burnt to death in his tent, apparently collateral damage.

Bryant and May, senior detectives at the Peculiar Crimes Unit are called in. The unit handles the unusual cases for the City of London police force, ones nobody else wants to or is capable of touching. For once this should be a straightforward case of identification, but of course when the PCU are involved things are never as simple as they seem and within 24 hours there’s another body, this one burned alive by molten tar. Then a targeted bomb kills another man.

Arthur Bryant, behaving even more oddly than usual, believes there’s a murderer on the loose, acting under the cover of the riots to exact his own revenge. He believes it is linked to the financial scandal. But outside the PCU nobody believes Arthur. Together Bryant and May must take on the establishment and even history itself to bring the killer to justice. But all is not well with Bryant, he’s diagnosed with a debilitating disease right at the moment everyone needs his brilliant mind the most. Together, Bryant & May face their own day of reckoning…

The prolific Christopher Fowler brings us another installment – this is the 12th – in the evergreen Bryant & May crime series. As ever the trademark Fowler style underlies and supports the narrative. First is an incredibly rich and remarkably in-depth knowledge of London, past and present, brought vividly to life on the pages. Second is the historic knowledge of events that underpin the story – bonfire night and its connection to modern day corruption and rebellion. Fowler has this canny knack of drawing these elements together in a fascinating combination of today and yesterday.

Third is the characterisation. From the dapper May to the bizarre Bryant and the supporting cast at the PCU, they fit together like wrinkled hand and worn glove, together until the end. But the author does not treat them gently – as well as the case itself Fowler also throws personal challenges at the pair through which they develop and grow, even at their ripe age. This time it’s a case of Alzheimer’s for Bryant. For a man whose mind is so critical to him and others this is as big a problem as he can be imagined. Then there’s London which, given its prominence in all these stories, itself can be considered the next most important character, behind the detectives themselves. Without London they would be diminished.

Add these aspects together and the result is an intelligent, challenging narrative – one where you need to think hard to determine the killer’s identity. Do not expect everything to be laid out like a clearly signposted trail of breadcrumbs. It’s cerebral, yet remains highly accessible and engaging. No easy task for a series into its 12th episode.

Long may it continue…

Read our interview with Christopher Fowler here.


CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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