Thank You America!
‘Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart’ is getting some terrific reviews in the US, including this one from the New York Times’s estimable Janet Maslin. I’m thrilled…oh, and that’s the American cover, and yes, it’s tangerine. (There was an earlier one in mauve)
BRYANT & MAY AND THE BLEEDING HEART
By Christopher Fowler
383 pages. Bantam Books. $26.
Christopher Fowler’s latest book is the 10th installment in his delectably droll Bryant & May Peculiar Crimes Unit series, and his second book published in America this year. The other is “Film Freak,” described as a “grimly hilarious and acutely observed trawl” through the nether regions of the British film industry, where Mr. Fowler embarked on a try-anything career in the late 1970s.
What do these very different volumes have in common? Only that, while embraced by a small but devoted following, they are criminally underappreciated by the wider world.
Mr. Fowler is crazily prolific to the point where his arch-British mystery series is only the tip of the iceberg. And it may not accurately represent his taste. The author’s likeness on his blog biography is that of a graphic-novel-style portrait of a dumbstruck green Mr. Fowler with a hatchet in his head. His book titles far from the Bryant & May vein include “Disturbia,” “Psychoville,” “City Jitters” and “Nyctophobia,” not to mention “How to Impersonate Famous People” and “The Ultimate Party Book,” and a critically lauded childhood memoir, “Paperboy.” Clearly, this is a multifaceted guy.
Yet he chooses to keep the Bryant & May books soothingly familiar in their basic setup. The two main characters, London’s most curmudgeonly detective, Arthur Bryant, and its most patient one, John May, are polar opposites in ways that are guaranteed to amuse. In “Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart,” May’s work space is said to hold a stylish table lamp, a few treasured paperbacks and white china coffee cups. Bryant has a dynamite fuse, sealing wax, a cricket bat full of nails, rare books (“Re-creating Renaissance Masterpieces With Cheese”) and a small black kitten nibbling on a mildewed sandwich. Dead things, too.
If Bryant did not have Holmesian gifts, he might not be tolerated by any modern law- enforcement agency. And in this book, when the Peculiar Crimes Unit is transferred from its turf in Bloomsbury to the tiny, compact, immensely important part of London known as the City, the unit’s new boss certainly entertains that thought. Happily, the crime at the heart of this book involves a newly buried corpse of a man who appears to have risen from his grave several days after his so-called death. The occult, the creepy, the just plain weird: this is exactly the kind of thing that ordinary detectives fob off onto the Peculiar Crimes team, if they possibly can.
There are witnesses to the rising of the undead man. In what is perhaps a nod to his own horror-smitten youth, Mr. Fowler puts a teenage boy and girl in the burial ground in the presence of this bizarre event. (Is the corpse in a graveyard or a cemetery? This is the type of hair that the Bryant & May books, which are actually exceptionally informative for their genre and place great emphasis on history, love to split.) The boy “didn’t explain himself very coherently, just said something about it looking like a scene from a horror film,” one investigator says. “I think he was quite taken with the idea.” Some kids, he explains, never get over their fascination for the paranormal.
And that cues Arthur Bryant’s entrance line: “Someone was whistling ‘Oh, Happy the Lily’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Ruddigore’ very badly indeed.” Mr. Fowler writes in a chipper tone that never flags throughout this novel, despite its undead corpse issues. May sticks his head out to see an approaching figure wearing scuffed brown Oxfords and thumping an ancient walking stick. “The remnants of Bryant’s hair had entered the new day without the benefit of a comb and thrust out horizontally from above his ears, lending him the appearance of a barn owl.”
These books follow the outline of police procedurals, but an abundance of attitude makes them special. Bryant & May’s new female supervisor brings out the worst in Bryant, who does not appreciate someone with an “M.B.A. in advanced gibberish” using the euphemism “senior sensibility,” as she alludes to him, a man who lived through the Blitz. Being sent off to investigate at the Tower of London makes for sourpuss merriment, too. Bryant resents having to find out why the seven ravens that live there have disappeared. He resents the Tower, now that it is dwarfed by skyscrapers. And he especially resents being laughed at by May when he gets back to the office. “So England will fall unless you find who swiped the ravens?” May asks. “Are you sure you didn’t fall asleep reading an Agatha Christie?”
Just as Mr. Fowler knows his film references (he has worked in film marketing, with credits on “Reservoir Dogs” and “Trainspotting,” among many others), Bryant & May seem well aware of the world of detective fiction. They rarely mention it openly, but they have been created as sweet, fusty holdouts against pointless violence and cogitation-free thrillers, endearing throwbacks to a time when this genre was brainy and pure. They are the last of a breed and they know it. They remain exactly where they belong. Mr. Fowler has no trouble convincing readers that London is a place where the occult lives on, the dead might rise, and a detective might absently pluck a kitten out of his pocket. Their very credibility puts quaint old Bryant & May in a class of their own.