Backstories To The Bryant & May Books No.1

Bryant and May

Water Room pb

This is the start of a short series of backstories to the Bryant & May novels, explaining how I came to write them.

Full Dark House

My father was a scientist who worked in an experimental wartime communications unit. He and his colleagues were very young, and – it turns out – were working towards a discovery that later changed the world. The full story is told in my memoir ‘Paperboy’, which he sadly didn’t live to read. He was unhappy after his company moved to Canada and he found himself having to stay in London, so I started the story as a little recompense for him.

Arthur Bryant and John May therefore head the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a police division founded during the Second World War to investigate cases that could cause public unrest. Based above a London tube station, the technophobic, irascible Bryant and smooth-talking modernist John May were to head a team of equally unusual misfits who are just as likely to commit crimes as solve them. This was their first outing.

My father did get to read the book – some of his stories about working in the unit eventually made it into the series – and he enjoyed them.

‘Bawdy, unpredictable and at times hilarious, with a cast of wonderful grotesques’ – The Guardian


The Water Room

Bryant & May’s investigation of a secret world beneath London begins when a woman is found in a dry basement with her throat full of river-water. In the quiet street where she lives, the residents are unsettled by the sound of rushing water. Further impossible deaths reveal a connection to the lost underground rivers of London, and a disgraced academic hunts an ancient secret that will soon be lost within the forgotten canals.

The idea came from the house in which I used to live in North London’s shabby, writerly Kentish Town, which had a room exactly like this, built over an underground river. The map in the front is even a copy of my own street. In my basement bathroom was a break-panel leading into the river which could be accessed in an emergency. The clues in the book are based on my surrounding streets; under there next road was a larger river – called, tellingly, ‘Angler’s Lane, with a pub on the corner called The Jolly Anglers. The river was paved over and the pub is now a Nando’s, so London lost another little bit of its geography.

And yet, after a heavy rain, you’ll find fresh grass growing through the pavement cracks where the river beneath is overflowing – a sign that you can never quite wipe out the city’s history.

‘The Water Room is terrific: great characters, great writing and lots of atmosphere. Fowler is very good at constructing a mystery, unlike a lot of new mysteries that don’t create the puzzles like the classic mysteries did’ – Publishers’ Weekly

(I always hated this cover, which came to be known as the ‘Simpsons Cover’.)

3 comments on “Backstories To The Bryant & May Books No.1”

  1. J. Folgard says:

    ‘The Water Room’ was my first B&M book, discovered after a mention of it in one of Stephen Jones’ anthologies -having enjoyed your earlier novels as a teenager it felt like meeting an old friend again! Looking back at the series and your current output for Solaris makes me a happy reader and yes, a fan. (that’s why, despite your legitimate reservations, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Simpsons cover, I guess) Cheers-!

  2. Wayne says:

    Wonderful insight, I started with Full Dark House. Truly got hooked on B&M from page one. Thank you Chris.

  3. Jim Bowman says:

    Was in London for the first time in 2012. Wife was attending the Chelsea Flower Show, while I walked the city. Went into a Foyle’s and asked a young woman, at the desk, if she knew of a good London detective novel I could read with my coffee. She almost broke her ankle racing to get me a copy of “Full Dark House”. I’ll be forever grateful.
    I worked my way through several more books before returning to London this year. It was wonderful to “recognise” tube stations and other landmarks from the books. You don’t need a travel guide when you have Bryant and May.

    BTW: The oldest building in my city: 1885.

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