20 Years Of Bryant & May!
I’m sitting before the blank screen about to type the title of the 20th Bryant & May book. It’s a good time to reflect on what I’m doing and whether I should even be doing it at all. My mystery series is deliberately, perversely esoteric. Does that make it elitist? It also features a pair of old white males. Does this make me a dinosaur? And it has a healthy readership but never breaks into the mainstream. Should I simplify the books to attract new readers?
I’ve read some outrageously lazy articles lately on what crime novels should and shouldn’t be about in the 21st century. Stephen King is now in trouble for saying he chooses quality before diversity (this is in relationship to the Oscars) but what else could he have said? Excellence is the first priority in whichever form it takes.
I’ve had the staying power to reach the 20th volume – or rather the canonical 20th, as the detectives have appeared in at least five other books -because I trust the characters. There are plenty of other series I’d like to write, including one I’ve been developing for years, but Bryant & May take up half of every year. I feel I should mark their longevity in some way by making this one special.
So, answers to the above questions. I am not going to dumb books down in order to reach a wider audience. I want readers reaching for dictionaries and looking up forgotten moments in history. Bryant & May may be old white males but they interact with a cosmopolitan London cast that reflects the city’s makeup. And I should continue doing it because I still have new stories to tell.
I decided some time ago that if I reached this number the books should come full circle, bringing me to an ending – or possibly to a new beginning. Twenty isn’t such a high number for crime authors (in fact, the book will be my fiftieth) and I can think of a great many series that went on for much longer. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. I’d like to explore every possible kind of fiction and would ideally drop the old boys into an alternative timeline of London life if I could get away with it.
To prepare for the writing of 2021’s mystery I went back to where it all began, and I’m astonished to find how much everything was in place from the outset. This is a passage from the start of ‘The Water Room’, the first book to be set in the characters’ present-day timeline;
Arthur Bryant knew far too much about London. It had been his specialist subject since he was a small boy, because it represented a convergence of so many appealingly arcane topics. Over the years he had become a repository of useless information. He remembered what had happened in the Blind Beggar (Ronnie Kray shot Big George Cornell three times in the head) and where balding Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie had been left dead in his Ford Zephyr (St Mary’s Rotherhithe), how a Marks & Spencer tycoon had survived being shot by Carlos the Jackal in Queen’s Grove (the bullet bounced off his teeth), and where you could get a decent treacle tart (the Orangery, Kensington Palace). He knew that Mahatma Gandhi had stayed in Bow, Karl Marx in Dean Street, Ford Madox Brown in Kentish Town, that Oswald Mosley had been attacked in Ridley Road before it became a market, that Notting Hill had once housed a racecourse, that the London Dolphinarium had existed in Oxford Street in the seventies, and that Tubby Isaacs’ seafood stall was still open for business in Aldgate. For some reason, he also recalled that John Steed’s mews flat in The Avengers was actually in Duchess Mews, W1. Not that any of this knowledge did him much good. Quite the reverse, really; the sheer weight of it wore him out.
The writing was more scattershot then, less controlled than the way I work now, as if I was emptying the dustbin of my mind out onto a blank page. ‘The Lonely Hour’ saw a change in my writing process that is more labour-intensive but rewarding. The comic writing is always deliberately kept separate, very specifically English and self-deprecating. The Bryant & May books remain, of all my novels and short stories, the only ones that defy translation into other languages. I should have adopted Agatha Christie’s clever style and used a vocabulary of less than 2,500 words.
As for the 20th book in the series, I have a provisional title and I have a plot. There’s a locked room element and a whodunnit element, there’s something sinister and something funny, and there’s a chance to feature 20 years’ worth of characters. Glancing at this year’s offering, ‘Bryant & May: Oranges & Lemons’, I’m pleased to see that it hits the ground running and sets off at a furious pace, hurling all sorts of madness at the reader. I’m going to keep that tone for the 20th, and may even increase its speed – I know my readers are a small dedicated band of intelligent, curious beings.
What could possibly go wrong?