Bryant & May: Cosies Or Subversives?

Reading & Writing

B&M ghosthunting

When I was a child, I became aware that I was supposed to be listening to the Rolling Stones, not Gilbert & Sullivan. When my classmates went to a Marc Bolan concert, I went to ‘Die Fledermaus’. They liked the lyrics of Leonard Cohen. I liked Cole Porter. It seemed I was always running 50 years behind everyone else. This doesn’t mean I didn’t pay attention to modern music too, but I needed to connect the past and present.

I was not alone, as Twitter reveals a wealth of interests from surprisingly young people who shouldn’t really be studying 19th century railway layouts and  dressing like 1920s dandys. There’s a pressure of conformity on us to act our age. While a youthful liking for Victorian music is tolerated, a middle-aged person listening to music considered to be the exclusive right of teenagers is frowned upon. The old, of course, know all the secrets of the young, although there is a moment when informed opinion becomes prejudice.

Still, it didn’t prepare me recently for being called an old fart online, after I  posted a jocular piece about London in stasis. I do see London in stasis, and have the experience to do so; its theatres, sports grounds, churches, pubs, meeting rooms and houses have hardly changed at all – only the business districts have in any sense altered, and I pointed this out. Moreover, even under the burden of an increased population London has somehow become more ‘Londony’ than ever before. Recently I managed to lose my wallet in a supermarket and leave my iPad in a cafe – both were handed in and returned with great politeness.

However, we live in times when freedom of expression is changing because of economic movement. New social rules govern internet behaviour, yet one has to be careful now about using the weapons of the writer, irony, sarcasm, satire. It’s surprising how many people fail to get the joke about stand-up Al Murray’s pub landlord character; that he embodies popular British prejudices while subversively drawing his audience into the very prejudices he personally hates.

Making a clever, outrageous joke in print is risky; this is no longer the right time to do so, and cleverness is often slammed down – yet many US TV shows, from ‘True Blood’ to ‘Game of Thrones’, have, to my mind, a  slutty lassitude to them that mixes outre sexual activity with childishness and triviality.

All of this brings me to Bryant & May. When I invented them I was still a relatively young man, and writing about older people made for a novel news item. I had them behaving subversively, causing trouble for the state, the law and the church, and by doing so joined an illustrious roll call that included WS Gilbert and Joe Orton. I was shocked to hear them described as ‘cosies’ by a friend in America, when I never thought of them as such, but compared to ‘The Wire’ and the books of Elmore Leonard, they most certainly are.

On Monday I did an interview about the series, and as I replied to the list of questions, I realised that I’m still operating in a field of one with the Bryant & May novels. There are gritty procedurals that touch on the concerns of modern life, but I know of no series that lightly mixes humour, darkness and themes of ageing, loss or – in the case of ‘Bryant & May and the Invisible Code’, politics.

In a few months’ time I start another volume, and feel I’m at a crossroads. I’m thinking of taking the characters into darker areas – still maintaining some humour, but (as you’ll see in the next volume due out in March, which has some of my most serious writing yet) tackling present-day concerns. In any urban environment we daily face moral decisions, and I’d like the books to reflect that.

The alternative is to start a new series that explores darker areas, while making the Bryant & May books light summer reading. The wonderful thing is that I still have the freedom to go where I want – and right now, I’m open to all ideas.

23 comments on “Bryant & May: Cosies Or Subversives?”

  1. Ilinca says:

    I’ve been a huge fan of the Bryant & May novels since I read the first – it must have been the Ten Second Staircase, then I went through all and now I can’t wait to get the next one. Honestly, it just feels like there’s too little of them out there.
    That being said, a major shift in tone or interests is a tricky proposition. I dropped Lincoln & Child’s Pendergast series the second it turned to mystical woo (not the same thing, I know, I’m just saying). Readers come to feel a certain sense of entitlement over characters that they grew used to, and might feel betrayed if old friends act in unpredictable ways.
    Still, I don’t think B&M are light summer reading; there’s a core of seriousness and grit that makes them so much more substantial.

  2. Jo W says:

    Please,Admin, don’t turn B&M into short attention span beach books. There’s too many of those around already. The ways in which you show them using their knowledge,gained through long experiences of the darker sides of life,to solve the crimes,makes for very absorbing and enjoyable reading. I like a book that makes me think. If it also has a touch of humour,all the better!

  3. Janet Wilson says:

    Admin- yes, yes, yes to first six paragraphs of this post- NOO!! to B&M becoming ‘darker’. I don’t read crime fiction as a hobby, and there’s more than enough for those who do. I love (yes, love) the characters in B&M, the psychogeo of London, the hints of another dimension influencing this, tho often missed by all but Mr Bryant and Maggie. I’d stop reading the moment I stop laughing out loud, often through my tears.

  4. Janet Wilson says:

    P.S. Haven’t seen the pic of B&M at Highgate(?) cemy before- John an old Ted, Mr Bryant like an aged E.L. Wistey. Proof they have a life beyond their creator- they inspire artists!

  5. Ken Mann says:

    The mixture of light and dark actually makes them more realistic. The doom-laden police procedural hurts itself by creating a world where police never have snowball fights and police ops staff never call street officers “petal” over an open channel. This is not the world we live in.

  6. Mim says:

    Subversive doesn’t have to mean hardboiled, and hardboiled isn’t always subversive. I do find something very comforting about B&M, so they’re ‘cosy’ in that sense, but it’s because they’re secure in their differences and their fascinating world full of interesting people. It’s a world I love to sink into. It doesn’t mean their world doesn’t make me think, or that it’s in any way bland.

    I’d like to see the dark side of B&M, personally. They’re too interesting to be in beach balls books…

  7. Librariandoa says:

    I enjoy having characters and their situations evolve over time. The only time it is a problem is if the author seems to completely change who they are, and undoes their support systems. I’m thinking of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone books where she struck off on her own and left behind the characters that I felt kept her grounded. If Bryant and May get into darker circumstances but remain themselves, I’ll be happy.

  8. Ken Murray says:

    As I’ve read the B&M book’s I’ve felt they have graduated towards darker themes over time. However, this always seemed to be a natural progression and this darker path is also the direction society appears to be taking. So Chris, not surprising you would want to explore this further?

  9. Diogenes says:

    Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri are the most similar novels in that they have a similar combination of humour, darkness, ageing and politics. They don’t have the same intense background and they slip over the border into the supernatural, while B&M flirt that border but don’t cross it.

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    Be very careful in switching tracks or you may find you have derailed the series. Your books aren’t just Bryant and May (and that excellent cat), you have created an entire world – your London – and populated it with people and places that your worldwide readers now relate to and love. Anything can happen – and has (bad boys on stilts, for example) – but the tone of your London and the people in it should not shift too far into the dark or too far into the beach balls (aside: after all there was a TV series years ago with a monster beach ball roaming about – although maybe its time it came back in downtown London, hummm…).
    My suggestion is tint not dye, take the curves gently, and do what feels right for the series, not what you feel everyone (who isn’t now reading you might want). You have already brought Bryant back from the dead (so I guess technically he’s a mellow zombie with brains which was pretty farsighted when you wrote around it) let that be as outré as you get.
    By the by the Dr. Siri series, while quite good, is too rigid, which your series is not. Cotterill also seems (to me) to be showing signs of character/place fatigue which your books most defiantly are not.
    I’m waiting for “Bryant and May and Arthur’s 100 Birthday Party”…a decade or so down the line.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I think Mim nailed it. If you don’t like the London of today you’ll have to give up the series of course but for all the whining I don’t think that’s likely so carry on as is. You’ve said yourself that authors shouldn’t copy others nor should they try to be what they’re not. Let what happens happen. We could have had one about the Olympics or the royal Jubilee – or not – and there’re all sorts of new things – the new art college, the new housing on your doorstep or the new/old hotel at St. Pancras but letting in the dark side, too. There is the note about upcoming difficulties in the Invisible Code and I assume you were going to take us in that direction.

  12. Bruce Wells says:

    I love the Bryant/May mysteries and look forward to reading each one. I have always admired the way you balance the lightness with the darkness; there are times when I feel like a scene is almost screwball comedy (in a good way) while other scenes have the gory, scary quality of a good giallo thriller (screwball giallo?), but I never think if the books as “cosies”. They are satisfying and endlessly inventive and, as long as you are happy with the characters, and your fans are happy, there’s no need to make radical changes. Personally, I find a lot of the procedural police thrillers difficult to read, the characters hard to empathize with. I think you’re doing a great job with the series as it is.

  13. Janet Wilson says:

    After considering what others have said, let me modify my ‘NOO!!’ I’m a latecomer to B&M, with the happy prospect of catching up with their many earlier adventures- but all must end, and getting darker doesn’t necessarily mean losing the humour. Many consider the last series of BlackAdder, set in the trenches, to be the best- indeed, one of the highlights of British tv comedy. To use a cliche, it transcends it’s genre. Better for B&M to go out with their chins held high than to die in deckchairs. Just don’t let any dire fate befall Crippen!

  14. Janet Wilson says:

    P.S. I just looked up the ‘Gilt of Cain’ memorial in Fen Court (Invisible Code ch.8) on ‘London Remembers’. (Recommended, honest!) What a fine poem by Lemn Sissay. Keep educating us on the wealth of London.

  15. Emerson says:

    Bryant & May are priceless gems. At the age of 65 I can appreciate their subversions. The (finally) nice thing about listening to Gilbert & Sullivan or Lehar when everyone else is listening to The Stones is that time eventually catches up with you and you hum along comfortably together while the others are trying desperately to pretend they are still eighteen years old. Sure, take them into darker areas, but no beach balls. And I think the term “cozy” should be banned from any discussion of detective fiction-mysteries-what have you. My assumption is that it was coined by someone who thinks all books should be the equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino film. No thanks. And I wish I were living in London so I could wander tthese areas myself, though Google Earth does a pretty damn good job for me.

  16. J. Folgard says:

    Personally, I think Bryant & May are subversive in opposition to such a large quantity of homogenized (i.e. boring) crime fiction nowadays. They’re well-rounded, deep characters rich enough to tackle some relevant, current issues without compromising their charm or wit -it could even bring a different perspective. Grim ‘n’ gritty are fine enough, but I’m sure the two old codgers can bring some peculiar kind of edge (and some whimsy!) to it. Just take them wherever you want, it will make for some good reading as usual!

  17. Captain Black says:

    With Bryant and May you have created a world where the crimes can veer from the fantastic (Avengers style – Steed & Mrs Peel rather than the Marvel comic) to the darker Mr Fox stories (the London Lector). It’s seems like the perfect sandbox to play in, where the tone can follow the story. As you’re asking though, I don’t like the references to the stories being inaccurate. For me, it breaks the suspension of disbelief. Why worry about the situations the characters might be in, if the account you are reading could be exaggerated and just untrue? A personal niggle and the only one I have regarding the series.

  18. snowy says:

    Subversion is a covert act, to effect a widespread change, At the begining it brings a shift so subtle that nobody realises what is happening, and its effect ripples out, growing in scale as it spreads.

    It is never ‘edgy’, that would reveal one’s hand, and risks the real motive being discovered.

    A covert action is visible only in what doesn’t happen.

    B&M might well seem ‘cosy’ to a non UK reader, for two reasons, the one mentioned, the background of home grown ‘hard boiled’ thrillers. But the less obvious is not picking up on the barbs hidden in the ‘local content’.

    To crudely fashion an example:

    “Brian was stuck halfway, dangling in mid-air, jammed solid, with no way of going forward or back, like BoJo the clown, but without the floppy finge, or the questionable grasp on reality.”

    Some readers will have a perfect picture in their mind, down to every detail, others will have fabricated an entire image from their own childhood memories, unique to themselves.

    But to amend matters risks destroying, the uniqueness of the novels.

  19. Steve says:

    Yes, Luke, bring Bryant and May to the Dark Side! Good heavens it’s not as if there’s no darkness in what they’ve done to date…Mr. Fox is a pretty dark character for one. Unless I’m completely missing what you mean by “the dark side”.
    Turning them into “light summer reading” would, in my opinion, be doing the world you’ve created (and therefore yourself) a great disservice.

  20. Stephen Groves says:

    Hi Chris,

    Light summer reading ! NO ! There’s no children’s section in the STALKY LIBRARY.Did Da Vinci think about painting my little pony characters in the background of The last Supper? No ! (in case you didn’t know).BAD FOWLER,BAD!
    all best
    STALKY

  21. Diogenes says:

    Dan

    I partially agree about Dr Siri. It’s very hard to maintain a series beyond about five books without getting boring or jumping the shark. I’m reading almost none by ten. Bryant and May, Erast Fandorin and Inspector Montalbano are my only ongoing series that are still going after ten books.

    Bernie Gunther and Dr Siri are up to nine and still going.

  22. Dan Terrell says:

    Diogenes
    Agree with you, although a couple of writers in the historical mystery wing have kept their series going interestingly for longer than ten. Inspector Montalbano has become a good TV series, as has the Dona Leon series, but the books are even better so much more detail and nuance. I find Bernie Gunter varies a good bit.
    Bryant and May don’t just keep going, they are always surprising and their stories hang together well. Once you’ve bought into the books, you almost find yourself saying of the two characters, like other older things, ‘back then things were just made better’.

  23. LAM says:

    Whichever direction you take the series, I trust you. You’ve earned it–there are deep constants through the vagaries of these unusual adventures. Whether darker or lighter, they will be there, I suspect–or something new will be born. And perhaps the reason some people read these books as “cozies” is that kindness and compassion are valued and honored, however dark, bitter, and jagged-edged the case may be. There’s the risk of loneliness, but there’s always something working against it. In very traditional cozies, that is often exemplified in the kind but sharp old ladies, or the bright young things in love. (I admit a weakness for traditional cozies.) In the B&M books, it just happens to be embodied by crotchety old detectives heading up the Department of Lost & Found police. In these cynical, financialized times, real kindness is intensely subversive. Or at least that’s how it looks from the tooth and claw wilderness across the Atlantic. I’ll take it any day over the embittered ex-cop, the self-righteous pursuit of justice by the impossibly perfect agent of law, or the tedious existential dread of those who have looked into the abyss and been excessively aware of their deep connection to the sociopaths they hunt. More Bryant & May – whatever direction they take!

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