How The Bryant & May Series Works – Part 2: Going The Distance

Bryant and May

(Continued from yesterday)

If I’d felt the series was going to run out of steam (the publisher’s nightmare, that an author invested in fails to deliver with consistency) I needn’t have worried. By pegging the characters to a more recognisable world I could lightly reflect current events and always have something new to write about.

I was still wary of turning the Bryant & May series into a soap opera, and tried to stay out of their private lives, but I noticed that the more human I made them, the more readers responded. They even started worrying about Crippen the cat.

The uniting feature of the Golden Age detectives is that they have no internal lives but are problem-solving ciphers given a few defining physical tics by their authors. I didn’t want cardboard cutout detectives, and developed their characters. Now that I was more confident I became relaxed about letting them roam across different crime sub-genres. I involved them in the unscrupulous rebuilding of London in ‘On The Loose’ and in the rise of violence on the London Underground in ‘Off The Rails’. Two plot motors in the latter book were based on real London events. And there were still jokes.

BANBURY:A serial killer, that’s what I reckon we’ve got here. We’ve not had many of them at the PCU, have we?

BRYANT: Not proper saw-off-the-arms-and-legs-boil-the-innards-put-the-head-in-a-handbag-and-throw-it-from-a-bridge-jobs, no.

The series does reflect my life fairly accurately. I don’t see the life of the drug dealer, I’m in a middle-class world where my neighbours are mostly in media, where you attend talks and concerts, eat out twice a week and go to the theatre almost as often. However, compared to my neighbours I’m ‘street’. I know an awful lot of eccentrics and crazies. King’s Cross is skewed far from the norm. It has a wild nightlife, with pop-up bars and rooftop hideouts everywhere. There’s a Greek cobblers called ‘Achilles Heels’ and a bookshop-barge where musicians play on deck while you browse. There are live performances on street corners, lots of cross-dressing students, kids playing in fountains and on a giant neon swing. Even our local Waitrose has a jazz bar in it. It’s messy, chaotic and energised.

As for the old-school criminal fraternities, you only have to look up the road a few hundred yards. There have been street gangs around Caledonian Road for 400 years, and knowledge like this is a tool that Arthur Bryant recognises. He knows that the past still informs the present.

The question remained; what were my detectives actually for? I needed goals, purposes and quests for them.

And I realised – they lived for work and asked themselves the same question. They had become a sounding board for the awkward, embarrassing state of having to be British, and the more uncomfortable I made them the more they responded. This is why their offices are in a permanent state of upheaval, their future is never secure, they doubt themselves and make mistakes. They cannot merely be Golden Age detectives in a modern world – they have to be like us, argumentative and difficult, imaginative and unruly.

To achieve this, I write the Bryant & May books differently to the way I tackle all other novels. I plan far less, writing a plot synopsis of no more than about eight pages, then diving straight into the first draft almost unprepared. It didn’t matter that I started doing this because I knew my characters inside out.

DOCTOR: You need to start acting your age, Mr Bryant.

BRYANT: If I did that, I’d be dead.

Golden Age mystery writers loved the artifice of theatre and its conventions; no wonder Ngaio Marsh used the stage as a setting! I played around with the idea in ‘The Memory of Blood’. When I wanted to have a gentle dig at the class system, I mined newspaper reports of the MPs’ expenses scandal and wrote ‘The Invisible Code’. Now it looked as if the series was going to extend beyond ten novels…

(Article concludes tomorrow)

8 comments on “How The Bryant & May Series Works – Part 2: Going The Distance”

  1. Jo W says:

    That quote about acting your age is one of my favourite Bryantisms,Chris. I have it on my notice board,to remind me I don’t have to act my age either. More power to Arthur’s elbow!

  2. SteveB says:

    Nice picture at the top, like it a lot.
    Not that I didn’t enjoy these books, and especially Mr Fox, but I felt, probably more now with hindsight, they were a bit of a holding pattern. The recent books, starting with the Burning Man, have hit a new level imo. Maybe even the best of B&M, where you pull all the threads together, is still to come. Looking forward to what you have to say in part 3. Thanks for this insight.

  3. Eva Balogh says:

    I have just started book 13 and was a little concerned when I reached the end of The Burning Man with the ‘fading’ of Mr Bryant. For a few moments I did start calculating his age and thought, well, this must be the end and Strange Tide would see Mr B washed up on the shore. Perhaps that was the intention? I have now forgotten about their ages, which is just as well because I do sometimes wonder whether I would be attracted to Mr May, or he to me in the real world…
    It has been very interesting reading the books back to back and seeing all the characters develop but also remaining (somewhat chaotically) consistent. For me these books are a joy. I absolutely love the historical research, (do you spend all your time in the British Library?) the political and social commentary and, of course, the humour.
    And yes, I do worry about Crippen and all those kittens…

  4. Brooke says:

    Just listened to Full Dark House–almost 70% of the book is set in a theatre, and makes excellent use of this metaphor. On first reading FDH felt Golden Age–Ngaio Marsh on LSD. Memory of Blood struck a different chord–puppets are folk art, straight to the gut morality/immortality, vicious disguised as fun. And more suited to creepy characters in MoB..

    At end of FDH, I thought of Burnt Norton poem–past is future; present is past and future. A theme I find in S-SC (my fave), WhC, Burning Man, Strange Tide, Wild Chamber. What Steve said– the team’s recent adventures are a new level.

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    I’d put only two constraints on what you do with B&M. The first is don’t kill them off. If you do I’m sure that many of us will be kicking your proverbial so hard that you’ll be flying out of King’s Cross faster than Nigel Gresley’s Mallard. The second is to limit the gender swaps to Crippen. I was even more worried than May when Bryant disappeared into the fog. Happily, he returned alive and well (more or less) and still of his original gender.

  6. Berenice says:

    Long live B&M! I don’t care about their actual ages or their timelines, who they actually work for or any pesky prosaic details. I just love them roaming around London showing me secret histories, arcane knowledge and hidden places. I just want them to keep on doing what they do for as long as you want to write them and possibly a bit more. They and their team are a joy and a delight. Take them any where and any when you want and I will gladly follow.

  7. Gay Kirchner says:

    What Berenice said word for word….❤️ this series and am always waiting for the next book or worried you’re done with this series and will chuck the whole thing. My favorites are the stories about old London. The audiobooks are
    great and the narrator Tim Goodman is a gem. His voice for Arthur is spot on because I always picture Lionel Jeffries
    as Arthur. Just don’t kill them off!

  8. Enjoying having these insights about the progression of the series. Berenice did say it well. In full agreement that the old London side of the mysteries enrich them. Well written!!!, humorous, great mysteries in themselves. This is an endearing friendship with Bryant and May that grows with time.

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