How The Bryant & May Series Works – 1: What Am I Up To?

Bryant and May

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)

17 comments on “How The Bryant & May Series Works – 1: What Am I Up To?”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    As someone who grew up on a diet of Sherlock Holmes and Biggles, stretching the timeline is no problem to me. Indeed, at my age, it’s even rather pleasant to read about such wonderful characters tackling various foes over rather more years then are normally available.

  2. Diane Englot says:

    You go right ahead and keep stretching that timeline like warm taffy…take us anywhere and any time you want to…we’re joyously here for the duration.

  3. Bernard Abramson says:

    Donna Leon has been writing her wonderful Commissario Brunetti stories for over 25 years. While the settings have travelled forward in time, the central characters, and in particular the Brunetti children, have hardly aged more than 5 or 6 years. It all works perfectly. I admit that by the time I read my fourth or fifth B&M novel I was puzzled by the timeline and could not work out how they had been grown-ups in the early 1940s yet still relatively hale and hearty in the 2010s. I can’t say it lessened my enjoyment of the books one bit.
    I hope you continue to bring them to us into the timeless future.

  4. SteveB says:

    Maybe White Corridor is still my favourite of the books.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    The Marvel ‘Multiverse’ was one of the main reasons that I gave up reading monthly comicbooks. The very worst offender was the various ‘X-Men’ comics, whose stories often crossed over into multiple titles – miss one, and you’re lost forever. Every now and then, they’d write themselves into a corner… And start over from scratch. Not just one title, oh, no. The whole shebang. DC do it too, and don’t get me started on the versions of heroes who coexist, but with wildly differing back stories. I like the odd DC heroes, like Deadman, Doctor Fate, Red Tornado, Martian Manhunter. All have been about for ages, and are difficult to screw up. But my £???!!!! monthly spend on comics was stopped long ago, and I only buy the collected versions of comics. Very occasionally. And Bryant and May? Yes, got their graphic novel – and here’s the thing; to my mind, they exist in the same sort of world as the deliciously kinky 1960’s ‘Avengers’ TV show, where everything is timeless. It could be today, twenty years ago, or twenty minutes into the future. Whatever you get them to do, it’ll be great.

  6. Richard Nordquist says:

    You’ve caught me. Back in the late 1950s, when I was 9 or 10, I wrote one of those nitpicking letters pointing out a continuity error in (I think) a Bizarro story in an issue of Action Comics. Fortunately I never became a Young (or Old) Republican. And since then wonky timelines have never bothered me.

  7. Richard Burton says:

    I think accuracy is less important than story when it comes to enjoyment. After reading the Jerry Cornelius books at an impressionable age, the whole idea of a timeline seems unnecessary, it’s the intent which is important. This stuff is made up after all, trying to justify it as if it’s real seems like a gateway to insanity.
    B&M’s age issue is well handled tbh. Christie and Allingham made fun of their protagonists when they got into their early 100s, but not in the main books themselves. The fact you’ve used your characters confusing longevity as a plot device, lets the regular reader enjoy it as a fourth wall kind of thing.

  8. Jan Briggs says:

    You are so full of shit Mr F …but I like you…

    Feelings not reciprocated thinks Fowler.

  9. admin says:

    No-one’s saying the series is a gritty police procedural, Jan, but how many of those endless drunk /comatose females-menaced-by-males thrillers make even the slightest nod to life in London?

  10. Orna Kustow says:

    I was very happy to accept Bryant back even as a ghost when you sent him wafting in the London fog in book 8 (or was it 9?). In short, I’ll take B&M in any form as long as I can rely on them to keep me company for a while yet.

  11. Jan says:

    Not disagreeing with you on either count there Chris but the old boys have led a very convoluted dance both age wise (which sometimes appears to be changing by the novel) and employment wise also. The Metropolitan Force, then the home office was it? Then the City of London? Are they still Cityplod at present or did you second them to the Parkies (parks police now part of the MPD I think) for the gardening book and leave them there?

    These old lads have the most complex job related employment history in the History of the crime novel.

    When it comes to paying the old lads their pensions – and they do seem to have accrued a good amount both – even with your multiple age related corrections – having now completed sixty years of service. Pensions branch now Capita might blow a fuse. when their commutation is worked out.

  12. Jan says:

    Here have you got any idea at all what you are up to?

    No thought not.

    Cut the crap Mr. Fowler you are awful but I like you.

    ( I have recently become very addicted to Dick Emery speak. I can’t stop)

    Here all being well am going to Australia soon be out of your hair for a month…..fully expect the old lads to have joined MODplod or something similar upon my return. Owts possible from the pen of the Fowler. Anything at all.

  13. Judith Bassett says:

    Having had the great pleasure of discovering Bryant and May, please don’t ever stop. I have learnt so much about the hidden history of London, and every book is a joy. My father grew up in the Kings Cross area and I’m only sorry he died before I could share your books with him. B&M forever

  14. Martin Tolley says:

    What Judith and Peter said. I don’t find the age thing a problem, and I think it’s only a niggle if you start at number 1 and work your way through pedantically and sequentially. If you’re a newbie and you dig in to the series at various points then each story happens “now”. You’re seeing the tale – a couple of old coppers doing their thing – in the present which you’ve created for them and presented to us.

  15. A young Republican having grown old, chiming in. I have come late to the party of Bryant and May and am glad because a number of what I call the Fowler books had already been written and I didn’t have to wait for a new release. An addicted reader, finishing a 3rd novel and writer of two blogs, I have written reviews on the series under the category, A Writers Writer. I LOVE Christopher Fowler’s writing and I consider Brant and May two of the most interesting characters in my life. A mystery reader, of course, what is also successful about this series is the settings where you learn something about the pubs, the underground, the theater, the river etc. and the divine cast of characters that are sought out for information to help solve the crimes. Bryant and May’s enduring friendship, all the way to the candy in the pocket with bits of fuzz stuck on, spell pure delight to me. With deep admiration for the intelligence and skill of the author, I click my heels and salute Bryant and May. May they live on.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    I’m one of the reading-them-in-order people. Read the new one then go back and read through from the beginning. If something seems “odd” I decide it’s probably me and don’t trouble Admin (very often). As was said, it’s fiction and the parts that are set in big events like the “anonymous” protests bring back that time. It seemed as if everything was burning up in oil fueled flames for a while.
    Candy. We’ve had barley sugar candy here from England. But did you know that in New Brunswick they make transparent barley sugar figures (small ones) of reindeer, elves, and other things for sale at Christmas time?
    Sorry, but I just learned this yesterday and had to tell someone.

  17. snowy says:

    Since we have drifted a little into the realms of confectionary.

    Sugar Toys, (I think they are called Clear Candy Toys over your side), never appeared on any tree we ever had. Perhaps wise as the cat went a bit, ahem.. unstable… whenever the parents dragged the plastic horror they had out of the loft. Never got to the bottom of that.

    But to drift back, for decades barley sugar used to contain about 10% whale.

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