Christopher Fowler, White Corridor (Bantam, 2007)
Christopher Fowler, writer of many a fine short story and countless novels, has done the impossible in White Corridor, his fifth Bryant and May novel -- he has crafted the perfect introduction to the long-running series. In this review, I will tell you why this is so. And why this is not the usual state of affairs! But first, a few words about the series just in case you're not familiar with it. As I said in my review of Ten Second Staircase, the previous novel in this excellent series:
What an odd but delightful affair this mystery novel is. If you've read my reviews before, you know that I love a good mystery series with fantastical elements like there were in Deborah Grabien's Haunted Ballads series where 'the ghosts are very real and many, many folk can experience their presence'. Well, things are even weirder here with everything from Bryant and May to the city of London itself being every so quirkily out of kilter. I must confess that I asked the good folks at Bantam to send along a review copy (which they promptly did) because a local bookstore had Ten Second Staircase face out in its mystery section and the cover art with its odd neo-victorian look caught my eye. Just having finished the Haunted Ballads series, I was looking for another mystery series to spend some time with, and I do believe that I have found it! This Christopher Fowler novel is indeed called 'A Bryant & May Mystery' and it 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 during the London Blitz of the early 1940s! Bryant is, by my estimate, a bit 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. 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. Full House Dark, the debut novel in this series, which I am reading next, won the Best Novel aka the August Derleth Fantasy Award in 2005 from the British Fantasy Society, which suggests that Arthur is sometimes right!
Got the premise? Good. Let's have a cup of tea, earl grey, or perhaps a smoky lapsang souchong with a some clotted cream, as we discuss this mystery.
White Corridor is, at its heart, a locked room mystery on one hand, and a matter of identities badly gone wrong on the other hand. Now normally I'd say to fully appreciate this novel that you should go back and read all of the novels that preceded it. Certainly that would be the case with Grabien's Haunted Ballads series, Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels, or even Simon Green's urban fantasy Nightside series. Certainly that's my reason for never starting a series unless I can read it from the beginning, which I admit can be a pain. It took me years to find all of the novels in Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad series! (The latter reading experience proved that some writers get much, much better with time. Fowler is rare in that his early works are as well-written as his newest works.) I read Ten Second Staircase first as that's what the publicist for Bantam sent but immediately went got the earlier novels and read them.
So why does White Corridor work as a introductory novel to this series? And why will it entice any lover of a English mystery to read the whole bloody series as soon as possible? Well, there is the matter of the locked room mystery being one of the most intelligently plotted ones I've seen. (No, I'm not telling you which of the series characters is murdered. Or even if he's really murdered.) Suffice it to say that because Bryant has persuaded May to go with him on a road trip out of London that the only help they can give the Peculiar Crimes Unit is by phone and computer which means the rest of the PCU must think for themselves!
Ahhh, character development. Fowler's a superb writer but some of the characters and their relationships to each other have been fairly static for some time now. Not any more. In doing so, you get a feel for the secondary characters, such as Janice Longbright and Colin Bimsley who first appeared as long ago as Fowler's Roofworld. (Bimsley died there, but a good character shouldn't be wasted!) Without Bryant dictating their actions, they are forced to think and act for themselves. (In all fairness to Bryant, it is he who helps them in an oblique manner solve their locked room mystery.) Meanwhile John and Arthur are stuck on a remote road in a raging blizzard, the worst any part of Albion has seen in decades, while apparently a homicidal maniac is going from stranded vehicle to stranded vehicle slaughtering those trapped within.
(Side-digression time. Have some more tea and a biscuit or two as well. If Albion, the older name for England, has a living spirit as more than one writer suggested, than Arthur Bryant is the ever so ancient spirit of London Itself as he knows more about that ancient city than anyone has a right to know. If these novels were either urban fantasies or novels tinged with magic realism, I'd put forth the suggestion that Arthur Bryant is but the vessel for something for older than his mortal body is. Just ponder that idea. End of digression.)
Bad things happen to both good and not so good characters (watch for the bit that involves a certain King Zog for an insight to the sliminess of one character), good things also such as May getting a better understanding of Bryant (after a mere sixty years as partners!), a problem troubling the Peculiar Crimes Unit is dealt with, and relationships of a romantic nature (!) may be developing among several of the Peculiar Crimes Unit staffers. After you finish this delightful story, go get Full House Dark, the debut novel in this series, to see how this all began oh so long ago. I envy you for having the luxury of reading these novels for the very first time!
Meanwhile I'll be eagerly awaiting The Victoria Vanishes, the sixth and rumored to be final Bryant & May novel!
White Corridor is dedicted Jim Sturgeon who, as Fowler tells me in an email, 'was a producer, my best friend, mentor and business partner for over thirty years. We lived a couple of streets from each other, driving each other to work every morning, and it was understood that if you became a friend of one, you became a friend of the other. He once saved my life, and pushed me harder than anyone about writing. He treated everyone equally from movie stars to bums, and he was Bryant to my May. He was wonderfully funny, a joy to work with, and if I do consider writing any more B&M stories after 'The Victoria Vanishes' next year, it will be because of him. He died from smoking-related lung cancer earlier this year. I miss him terribly.'