How The Bryant & May Series Works – 1: What Am I Up To?
I’m up to Book 18, if you must know.
Seriously, it crossed my mind the other day, what am I up to with these characters? Writers are meant to have a plan, but I started out with a crime novel set in World War II, inside a venerable theatre. I had already created (I say created, thanks to my father’s profession they were always there in the back of my brain) a pair of detectives, and they were young, not old, because it was the early 1940s.
Like WS Gilbert I love paradoxes, and even set one in the title of the first book, because a theatre’s house can be either ‘full’ or ‘dark’ but not both. But I couldn’t sell the book. It was unfashionably out of step at that time. So I thought, I’ll write a wraparound mystery set in the present day that helps to solve the mystery from the past. That meant that I had to age the characters accordingly, so in the present they had to be old. And as I started writing ‘Full Dark House’ a long time ago, it was still conceivable then that they had been wartime heroes, and were still working for the Metropolitan Police…
But as time went on, I saw that my initial idea of continuing to sweep back and forth in time wasn’t going to work. Ideally I’d have pushed them back even further to the 1930s. Readers can be very pedantic about timelines. They’ll merrily accept that there are serial killers pouring boiling oil on their victims but are troubled by inaccurate dates. So I created Bryant’s unreliable memoirs to deal with any timeline issues. This led to what I call the ‘DC/Marvel paradox’.
Marvel has a relaxed attitude to timelines – they flow back and forth and bend and stretch, and their characters renew and adapt. DC is far more tightly wound about such things. Just as their letters pages were once filled with nitpicking readers (who probably grew up to become Young Republicans) pointing out ‘boo-boos’ – continuity errors – to the editors, so DC finally felt the need to explain everything by inventing The Multiverse, a ludicrously complex multiple-dimension theory that could theoretically unscramble its storylines.
This was the last thing I wanted to do, but now I had a series based on a standalone novel that had never meant to become a Multiverse. And along the way, an odd thing happened. The characters of the two detectives became so clearly established that everything else started falling neatly into place, and I found myself writing many different kinds of crime story, all linked by the same protagonists. Bryant & May became the figureheads under which I could sneak in any kind of story I wanted to write.
You start to see the change from Book 5 onwards. ‘White Corridor’ is far more character-based than the first four volumes, the reason being that with ‘Ten Second Staircase’ I felt I was in danger of writing too outlandishly. Its tale of schoolboys and highwaymen teetered on the brink of lunacy, and I needed to pull back and make the stories more realistic. So I next marooned Arthur and John in a snowswept Devon because I realised that a blocked road could effectively become a locked-room mystery.
When this worked, pulling the series back from the brink of becoming nonsensical, I next used a pub as a setting in ‘The Victoria Vanishes’. Although it was able to include an homage to the wonderful Edmund Crispin, its story arc concerning deaths at Porton Down mirrored real-life events which were taking place there.
Now the stories were being grounded in something a little more real, and the comedy parts became confined to scenes only involving the staff. I’d accidentally hit upon a truth; in order to prevent the series from being written off I could pit Bryant & May against some of society’s real foes…
(This piece continues tomorrow)