England’s Finest

Written by Christopher Fowler — ­It often feels like you have hit the jackpot when you fall in love with books featuring terrific fictional characters and discover that there are plenty more to read that have already been published. There are 16 novels in the Bryant and May series and one previous short story collection. So it was, when I picked up this collection starring the unique and exceptionally eccentric DCI Arthur Bryant and his partner DCI John May of the Met’s Peculiar Crimes Unit.

The pair are handed cases that no one else understands and they uncover crimes that no one else knows have happened. One of their strengths is that they remember the days before numbers and targets and customer care dominated police work.

A dozen hushed up cases, spanning the decades from World War II to the present are misremembered with much dark humour and confusion by octogenarian Bryant, who has difficulty recalling the events of yesterday, is baffled by the heat of a summer’s day, and has no hope of understanding how to use his mobile phone.

If, like me, you are new to Bryant and May, the author has helpfully included a potted history of the PCU in an attempt to diminish further confusion and bafflement. You soon get the measure that you’re in for a treat. The unit was founded in 1939 by Winston Churchill and recruited young and experienced students, some still at school, who were talented, but had no social skills or resources. The main thing is that they were free to use unorthodox methods.

Bryant takes this mandate to ignore the rules to the extreme as he delves into his seemingly bewildered brain for clues as to what happened in 12 lost cases, presented as Bryant’s memoirs. For all his apparent bumbling, make no mistake, Bryant is as razor-sharp and dexterous as a magician, as he pulls unforeseen answers from the sleeves of his Harris Tweed overcoat and solves these oddball mysteries with verve and a lot of wit. His age is described as being “somewhere between prostate and post mortem”. 

His exasperated partner May often smoothes the way with witnesses and suspects and is allowed to shine by solving some of the crimes himself, as do some of the unit’s other oddball team members.

Each story reveals more about the quirks of the players. In Bryant and May’s Day Off, our heroes are bored as they take a stroll in post-war London. Bryant may be struggling to cope in the August heat in his vest and tweeds but collars a criminal and feels useful again. In the opening tale, Bryant reveals he has a heart and is capable of empathy in Bryant and May and the Seventh Reindeer, which inspired the book’s festive cover with its sleigh, parked outside a Tube station. 

In the swinging 60s the pair zoom up the Post Office Tower for a Halloween caper and a classic tale about a master criminal turning the lights out to commit a dastardly deed. Our decrepit duo travel to Transylvania to catch a book thief, and thwart Dracula, whilst the Forty Footsteps is just one of the London myths that is busted through sheer cleverness and observation.

Our Golden Age-style detectives appear as out of place as Hercule Poirot in the modern age, but Bryant’s leaps of understanding of human nature and his unorthodox ability to think outside of the box see him right… some of the time. Although of course, his aforesaid lack of social skills is exemplary. When he tells the unit’s operations director Janice Longbright, that he thinks of her like an escritoire, sturdy and useful, he has no idea why she is peeved. She responds by helping Bryant solve the mystery of why his postman hurtled past his window to his death to hammer home her point that seeing the female perspective is useful.

The two Daves, a pair of Turkish maintenance men who have become trapped inside the unit’s arcane building for three years since they arrived to fix a toilet, are two of the unit’s extras, mined for their comedy potential.

Fowler is a playful trickster, up there with the best mystery writers as he hides puzzles amongst the jokes and low comedy. Bryant may irritate his colleagues, and is cheerfully non-PC, but he is timeless, whatever the age of the setting, and dazzled me with his explanations and final reveals. So much fun.  

If you are unfamiliar with the series we have a guide, and an interview with the author.

Doubleday
Print/Kindle/iBook
£11.73

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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2 Comments

  1. Gram Lynch Reply

    Great review. I’m a huge Bryant and May fan and love that Christopher Fowler wears his heart on his sleeve in writing about modern day Britain.

    Your line “One of their strengths is that they remember the days before numbers and targets and customer care dominated police work.” sums up this country over the past 40 years when everything that matters is reduced to merely ticking boxes.

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