Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May on the Loose
(Doubleday UK, 2009)

Christopher Fowler's new mystery novel, Bryant & May On The Loose, is possibly the finest so far in a series which now has seven terribly good books. Mind I still feel like John Constantine from the Hellblazer series should be consulting with the Peculiar Crimes Unit as the world that Fowler describes could easily co-exist with the much weirder world which Constantine is a resident of!

As with the rest of this series, Bryant & May On The Loose features quite probably the oldest and oddest set of detectives in any mystery series I know of -- Arthur Bryant and John May, who first joined the Peculiar Crimes Unit (a police division founded during the Second World War to investigate cases that could cause public unrest) during the London Blitz of the early 1940s! So Bryant is in this novel, by my rough estimate, is somewhere well north of eighty years and feeling every bit of his age, both mentally and physically, but May is maybe a half decade younger and in much better shape, though he will face serious illness in the course of this series. Arthur Bryant seems to inherently believes in the supernatural as being at the root of their peculiar mysteries, but May is more of a rationalist.

Fowler describes the two gents as the 'technophobic, irascible Bryant and smooth-talking modernist John May', which is a reasonable way to think of them.

(Fowler said in an email that he deals head-on with their apparent ages in the next Bryant and May novel, Bryant & May On The Rails, which is, again according to Fowler, set entirely in the London Underground. That should be interesting.)

(First digression. Oddly enough, Fowler drops a very broad hint in the first few pages of Bryant & May On The Loose that ghostly things do happen -- at least as concerns the staff of Peculiar Crimes Unit in general and Arthur Bryant specifically.)

(Second digression -- Do read White Corridor, his fifth Bryant and May novel, first as Fowler has crafted the perfect introduction to the long-running series in that novel. Follow-up on that read by reading The Victoria Vanishes, as the back story in Bryant & May On The Loose are directly a result of what happens in that novel.)

(Final digression. The artwork on the English editions of this series is, in my opinion, far, superior to the American edition. If you can get them, so so!)

Though I have come to love many an audiowork, such as Simon Green's Deathstalker series which I'm listening to now on my morning walks, some texts have to be read, such as these novels, as the language is better read than listened to.

In this novel, an apparent Herne the Hunter is killing people in an apparent random fashion by decapitating them in what appears to be a sacrificial manner. Or at least that's what Arthur Bryant, a man steeped in folklore and history of London, believes. Fowler has noted on his blog that 'There's a running gag . . . throughout the Bryant & May novels about the bizarre reference books Mr Bryant stores on his bookshelves' and those books figure into this novel as well.

Anything can appear to be of a magical nature if one believes it is, and Arthur does so at least initially in this investigation into some truly strange events, in part because he has books that cover every weird subject imaginable that concerns London specifically and England in general!

Keep in mind that having been regarded an anachronism and a royal pain in the ass for the Home Office which it answers to, the Peculiar Crimes Unit has been disbanded -- effectively without an office, and are now back together in a hurry to solve a crime with no resources, including forensics or even access to the various databases modern detectives use every day. Of course, they can also call on a witch if need be, or other rather unconventional resources. . . .

What we have here is a very good mystery told well that advances both the story of Peculiar Crimes Unit and the individuals. Some staff will find love at long last, some staff will find tragedy and some will find that they are indeed stronger than they think they. It's also worth noting the pace in Bryant & May On The Loose is considerably faster than in the preceding novels and Fowler tells me that the pace of Bryant & May On The Rails will be even more lively. I can't wait to read it!

[Cat Eldridge]