Bryant & May: New Readers Start Here

Bryant and May

I was recently asked to summarise the Bryant & May novels in a page. This is a great exercise for authors, and allows you to develop a little perspective. Here’s what I came up with.

There’s an image that always springs to mind when I start a new Bryant & May book; London office workers on summer lunch breaks, eating Pret sandwiches while sitting on tombstones. Strange histories are all around them, but they fail to notice.

The Bryant & May books – seventeen novels so far plus two volumes of missing cases – are set in an academic police division called the Peculiar Crimes Unit, ‘peculiar’ in the original sense of ‘particular’. The idea is rooted in fact; my scientist father worked in such an experimental unit.

Bryant and May have a remit to investigate cases that can cause public unrest, but they do it in a unique fashion, by involving misfit experts who are shunned because of their unorthodoxy. These include British Museum academics, artists, lecturers, a white witch, scientists, members of the Gilbert and Sullivan society, and the sort of people whom one might cross the street to avoid.

The third character is London itself, not the city of Instagrammable sights but one of hidden alleys, disreputable pubs and unvisited museums, of secrets hiding in plain sight.

Arthur Bryant is a proud Luddite, elderly, insulting, erudite, esoteric, conveniently deaf, a smoker of disgusting pipe tobacco and cannabis for his arthritis. He’s a terrifying driver, uses a walking stick and takes lots of tablets. Lovable and unexpectedly kind, he’s also incredibly annoying. His partner John May is charming, moremodern and a bit of a ladies’ man. Bryant is the unpredictable academic, May the patient voice of reason.

The Bryant & May books are not cosy. From the anti-capitalist riots to the release of refugees, every topical subject is thrown at them. But this is London as we like to see it; quirky, odd, ingenious. There are no supernatural elements, no unfair tricks, just sleight of hand. The cases unfold in a city where fine old town halls are sold off as boutique hotels, where councils steal parks, where libraries and local museums are forced to close.

The novels have a following of readers who ‘get’ their tone of mischievous fun. A lot of the dialogue is directly lifted from overheard remarks. Example; London’s Coach & Horses pub was the drinking hole of the Prince Edward Theatre’s scenery shifters. One evening I overheard a huge tattooed shifter at the bar telling his mate, ‘I said to him, call yourself a bleeding Polonius? I could shit better speeches to Laertes than that.’

The unlikeliest elements in the Bryant & May novels are mined from London’s forgotten lore; tales of lost paintings, demonised celebrities, buried sacrifices, mysterious guilds, riots, scandals and social panics with casts of fanatics, eccentrics and impresarios who have been washed aside by the tide of history – but if you look hard enough you find their descendants all around you.

I’ve ended up exploring the Blitz, theatres, underground rivers,banking scandals, artists, tontines, highwaymen, property, churches, clubs, migrants, the tube system, codebreaking, riots and Guy Fawkes, and still feel as if I’m only scratching at the surface of London history.


15 comments on “Bryant & May: New Readers Start Here”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    Recently discovered the Bryant and May series, and have now bought copies of the whole set. I am reading them in order, and am up to The Victoria Vanishes. Really enjoying them, the plots, the humour, London, the characters. Started following your blog after reading Paperboy and Forgotten Authors. I remember a lot of the forgotten authors, and have now listed some new ones to buy. (I read Passion Flower Hotel when I was still at school, rather an eye-opener, it was nothing like my mixed sex country Grammar School experience!) (unfortunately).
    Favourite reading story: the school English master gave us a recommended reading list in 4th form. It had all the usual suspects on it, but in the middle was Rabelais. I’d never heard of him, so went to the local Public Library where I discovered the book was catalogued as ‘restricted’. I went to the desk clerk (female) and demanded the book (well, who wouldn’t, with a restricted label on it). No, not suitable, under no circumstances etc. I produced my reading list. What school do you go to? Outrage! I’d better not name the library or school I suppose, but I swear this is all true. I stood my ground and argued for 20 minutes, at the end of which the librarian stormed off with a key and unlocked a cupboard. She handed over the book. I took it home. I read the first 3 chapters carefully. Very, er, excretory. So I skimmed the rest of the book. Even at that age (15), I recognised religious satire when I saw it. I’d told my parents about the epic battle, mercifully they clearly had never heard of Rabelais either. I’ve often wondered whether the librarian wrote a letter of complaint to my school headmaster….

  2. Jo W says:

    Hope you are having an enjoyable Spanish break,Chris and are not toooooo hot.
    A question,(on topic,I hope) has anyone heard news of Raymond Kirkpatrick lately? Has he been let out of the basement recently?

  3. Bernard says:

    A while ago you asked for possible casting of a B&M television series or film. I do not see Toby Jones as Bryant (not sufficiently imposing) nor Michael Gambon (too imposing). I would like to see Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the roles except that they are both far too tall. Michael Sheen and David Tennant work well together in Good Omens and Sheen is plastic enough both physically and as a character actor to match any personality.

    Let’s face it, casting John May is far easier than casting Arthur Bryant. Any tall, elegant, calm actor will fit May. However, my first choice for Bryant would be Alan (Alun) Armstrong. He can be eccentric, funny, crazy, inspired, and dignified in turns and is totally convincing.

  4. Brooke says:

    From 22/06 post, tried writing one liner about B&M. Started with City of London… then people and lastly B&M. Interesting that in your description it’s the reverse.

  5. Wim Es van says:

    I just read the first Bryant and May novel. I am going to read the lot!


    Wim van Es
    The Netherlands

  6. Gary Hart says:

    Bernard, that is genius. I hadn’t thought of Alun Armstrong but he would be perfect. I had thought Geoffrey Palmer for May?

  7. admin says:

    Raymond Kirkpatrick is back in October (watch next week for the new cover).
    Geoffrey Palmer would be great although he is 92.
    Peter Jeffreys would have been brilliant too.
    Wim – we love the Netherlands!

  8. Helen Martin says:

    You say there are no “supernatural elements” but I give you Mr. Fox and the warning against taking him too lightly. (It was Fox Arthur was warned about, wasn’t it?) That seemed to be a personification of the more troubling elements of London’s character.

  9. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Another vote for Alun Armstrong.

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    Let’s try the single sentence for B&M, ‘Un-retiring detectives and their strange and marginalised circle crack the terrible and peculiar crimes hidden deep in London.’

    I was thinking, ‘never retiring’, and ‘from the depths of London.’ But I think it just about works.


  11. Peter Tromans says:

    A third vote for Alun Armstrong. Much as I admire and identify with older actors, they may not be the best choice for a series that you hope will run for a few years. David Suchet was much younger than Poirot when he started and even when he finished, but he survived the series and probably gave us the definitive Poirot (my view; I’m happy to be corrected). Might also save on the insurance costs.

  12. Sue Averay says:

    I’ve been exiled from London since my early teens, when my family became ten pound Poms and moved to Australia. Your writing brings my London back to life for me and teaches me about all that I’ve missed while I’ve been away, enticing me back from time time to try to find Bryant and May’s city by getting off the beaten tourist tracks. Thank you.

  13. bill051 says:

    Alun Armstrong would be great but he was in “Old Dogs” and not a million miles from Mr Bryant.

    I don’t think it was Mr Fox that he warned was about but I can’t remember which character or which book it was.

  14. John Howard says:

    Yet another for Alun Armstrong. The fact he was in “Old Dogs” just shows that he can do it. Just needs less psychological angst, more Old Git.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Alun Armstrong is a brilliant actor, and indeed, one of my favourites. One thing prevents him from being Arthur, though: he is rather tall and wiry, which Arthur, most definitely is not. I saw Alun Armstrong in a TV play where he played a very sour, ill-tempered school teacher, who has to supervise a school trip to a Zoo. On the return trip, it is found that several children have ‘borrowed’ animals, including, I believe, a Penguin. It was a great play, and Armstrong’s character mellows throughout, and he tells the kids that nobody else in the school must ever know that he’s not actually the terrifying monster everyone assumes him to be; it’s a tough school, and his facade must not drop.

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