Bryant & May: The Hidden Homages
Mystery authors can be tricksters; some of us like to hide puzzles, jokes and references inside our books – we can’t resist it. Musicians do it all the time, and I’ve been doing it for years in the Bryant & May books. The most obvious joke is the names of the detectives, which were taken from a matchbox (this will be made more explicit in an upcoming volume of Bryant & May short stories exploring their lost cases).
A number of characters came from my love of old forgotten British comedies. Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright is clearly an amalgam of several policewomen. I couldn’t take any characteristics from the best one, the long-suffering Ruby Gates, played by Joyce Grenfell in the original St Trinian’s films, because they didn’t suit her character. Gates is in love with her sergeant, who gets hauled over the coals for missing a police broadcast after he finds that the channel was tuned to one playing romantic music. Her response; ‘Oh Sammy, you used to call me your little blue-lamp baby.’ This is only funny if you can picture her.
Instead I borrowed a little from Eleanor Summerfield’s character in ‘On The Beat’, wherein the sergeant has to avoid suspicion during her investigation of a hairdresser’s by repeatedly having her hair done under the name of Lucinda Wilkins. As the film progresses, she ends up with such strange hairdos that the other officers all stare at her. Here she is meeting gangland boss-cum-hairdresser Wisdom for the first time.
There are also bits of Liz Fraser, Sabrina and other pin-up models from the 1950s, but to this I’ve added the toughness of a Googie Withers in ‘It Always Rains On Sunday’ and Barbara Windsor in ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’. The first film is explicitly mentioned in one of the PCU bulletins.
Arthur Bryant’s run-ins with his doctor are parodies of Galton & Simpson’s work with Tony Hancock, and with a scene from ‘On The Beat’ in which Norman Wisdom sings an eye-chart on stilts. Bryant’s landlady started out as an Antiguan version of Irene Handl (whom I once spent an enjoyable afternoon with) in ‘The Rebel’. The name of Dame Maude Hackshaw, one of Maggie Armitage’s coven, is taken from a St Trinian’s film, as is the idea of the two Daves never leaving the PCU office.
‘The Victoria Vanishes’ is a direct homage to Edmund Crispin’s ‘The Moving Toyshop’, one of my favourite Golden Age mysteries. I’ve also broken the ‘fourth wall’ a few times in the style of Crispin.
One of my favourite movie puzzles is hidden in the swinging London film ‘Smashing Time’; if you put together all the character names in the film you get the first verse of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. I’ve been trying to set that one up for years.
Why would I have picked forgotten B movies to take homages from instead of serious-minded British films? Because I like the peripheral pleasures of small films. These were the last series of home-grown movies made without Hollywood interference. Most aren’y terribly good but they have strange moments and quirky characters.
Artist Keith Page made some of these homages clearer in his drawings for the Bryant & May graphic novel, packing his scenes with character actors.
There are other references to mysteries in the books, most notably to Robert Louis Stevenson and R Austin Freeman. Agatha Christie would have been a little too obvious, I felt. One day I might catalogue all of the puns and puzzles tucked in the pages, but for now I’ll let you spot them if you can.