Written by Christopher Fowler — If ever there were a more apposite and descriptive title for a book, then I have yet to see it. Fowler – via his detective characters Arthur Bryant and John May – glories in London. He loves its grandeur, its history of architectural bloody-mindedness, and he treasures the nooks and crannies of the ancient city.
This collection of 11 winter tales gets off to a cracking start with a preface by the author, which takes the form of a sharp and funny critique of the crime fiction genre. Fowler laughs with us – not at us – as he examines the kinds of preposterous events that crime fiction readers not only put up with, but almost come to expect. The more explicit and bloodthirsty writers who aspire to realism don’t escape his gentle mockery, either. Do read this introduction – it sets up the following stories perfectly.
Fowler has decided to have fun at the expense of the implausible locked-room mystery and solution he refers to in his introduction. Both detectives belong to the fictional Peculiar Crimes Unit and inevitably it is Bryant who provides the flashes of insight, while May trots along behind, only coming to the fore when physical action is required.
Although some of the crimes take place in such familiar locations as London parks and common spaces, Fowler is not afraid to take us far beyond the cosy. In The Seven Points we are introduced to a funfair freak show every bit as blood curdling as anything displayed in the shock horror movie The Human Centipede. In On the Beat we are in another locked room, but the killer stays in there with the corpse, much to John May’s bewilderment. And, The Bells of Westminster extends the joke to give us a dead aristocrat in a story with echoes of the Profumo Affair. Where was Simon Montfleury killed? In the library, of course! With what? Yes, you guessed, the dagger!
In the Field sees the pair pondering a dead woman in the middle of a snowy Primrose Hill, with only her footprints leading to the corpse, and we are flies on the wall when the two codgers are adrift on a luxury cruise off the Turkish coast, in Ahoy. Back home, we have a vengeful department store Father Christmas in The Secret Santa, and The Nameless Woman who presents herself to John May and explains precisely how she is going to kill her future victim. Fowler is determined to leave no London cliché unused, and In The Soup has Arthur and John trying to solve a case in the impentrable smog of December 1952.
Fowler couldn’t write a dull paragraph or a wasted line if his life depended on it. The longevity of his crusty pair defies credibility, but this is crime fiction, not documentary. At some point, Arthur and John will have to totter up the staircase to that Peculiar Crimes Unit in the sky, but until then we need to cherish every word, laugh at every joke, and stand in awe of their unrivaled knowledge of the strange history of our great city.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars