Are Bryant & May Books Hard To Read?

Bryant and May

A chance remark from a friend has thrown me.

Through him I gave a middle-aged Australian lady a copy of ‘Bryant & May: The Lonely Hour’. She had complained that she’d used up her Lockdown books and was looking for something new. My friend later explained that she hadn’t got on with it, and had actually got stuck very early on in the book, during Raymond Land’s briefing to the unit.

Now this is interesting. When you give someone a book the next time you bump into them they always guiltily say, ‘I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.’ I point out that it’s not a test, I don’t mind whether they read it or not. If I give someone a T-shirt they don’t have to wear it. A gift is not meant to be a burden.

And they’re never honest if they have read it. They always say it was great, or really enjoyable, not that the middle sagged or some of the characters were annoying. They don’t give you anything you can grab onto and work with.

It made me think about readability. The books I’ve had most trouble reading are the mountain-peak books; Proust (because I was uninterested in our weedy hero staring at girls and trying to work out if they had good shapes beneath their bustles in ‘Swann’s Way’), ‘Don Quixote’ (millions of references I didn’t understand, gave up), ‘Paradise Lost’ (don’t have the religious mindset), ‘Moby Dick’ (good story, strangulated language) and ‘Ulysses’ (never bothered, in the way that I’ve never bothered with cryptic crosswords).

There are far more accessible books that remain on my shelves unread because of a lack of magnetism between me and the book that makes it easy to say, ‘I’ll get to that at some point’. There are crime novels, too, that have no appeal, and some that read like walking over broken bricks in bare feet. Something has been lost, you feel, when the latest hot-button crime thriller is less enjoyable than a Maigret novel.

I try to avoid boring or confusing readers, even when the plots get complex, but I made a decision early on not to water down the density of the books, because they’re a reflection of my own speech, fast and overstuffed with information. I figure that if you don’t know a word you look it up – isn’t that part of the fun?

My friends tend toward the lurid and opinionated (especially after a drink). I used to dry up with those who had little to say, but Lockdown has forced me to be gentler and more patient. I’ve realised that most people do not want to read anything uncomfortable, and that even though serial killer novels are almost pornographically visceral they don’t count because they’re clearly not real. I recently read ‘Tender is the Flesh’ by Agustina Bazterrica, about a slaughterhouse worker in an abattoir of human beings, and it was too much for me.

If readability is a problem – I never got over the sting of being accused by an American reader of writing in ‘deep English’ – then I’m screwed, and it would probably explain why the dumbest comic book gets filmed for TV while Bryant & May never get a look-in. I could write a novel in a crime novel pastiche and see if that sells. ‘Arthur Bryant looked at himself in the mirror. He looked like shit.’ Part of the fun was creating a character that went against the accepted rules for heroes.

I’ve written more than my fair share of feisty females, and specifically wanted Bryant to be someone I’d never really seen before (the hero of Pixar’s ‘Up’ probably comes closest). I wanted the language to be occasionally outlandish because (my mantra) dialogue is not conversation. As I embark on the 20th Bryant & May novel, I find myself more than ever committed to the tenets of the first novel. If that leaves me in a niche, it’s a nice niche to be in.

50 comments on “Are Bryant & May Books Hard To Read?”

  1. Jan says:

    If the readers aren’t from Britain and are reading in English or if you are reading a translation they might be hard going Chris. In translation particularly maybe…

    They are detailed and multi layered. Densely packed with so many facts.

    Idiosyncratic. That might be the word.

    Someone like Stephen King seems to write in a particularly “filmic” way. Physically in a sense though that might sound daft to you. I don’t find your stuff at all the same as that. Your early stuff was but that was more horror writing.
    Interesting that you have said previously that you you script the stories after the novel is finished.
    Are the scripts much different from the novels in tone /theme? Does the emphasis of the tales change?
    Sorry I am still e mail less hope you are feeling good.

  2. Jo W says:

    Hi Chris,you’re sounding much better, recovery continuing? Is ‘im indoors sorted now that he’s appropriated your writing desk?
    Your advice to look up big words you don’t know, well, I read that in a Molesworth voice. His description of the answers to questions,by masters at St Custards, “look it up,boy,look it up” while doing the same undercover of the desk.
    By the way,it’s something that I’ve been doing ever since learning to read. If there wasn’t a dictionary nearby, I noted the word on a scrap of paper and placed it in the book so that I didn’t lose the context and could look it up later. A much loved 9th birthday present was a pocket size Collins dictionary. I still have it. Taking a list of big words with me when I went to the library meant I could go into the reference section- a leather-bound heaven!
    Stay safe and well,all.

  3. 4Matt says:

    I don’t think they are, however I did lend one to a friend that didn’t get on with it because there were too many words he didn’t know the meaning of.

    I like the way they are written and wouldn’t want them any other way.

    Best wishes and wishing you a full and speedy recovery.

  4. Liz Thompson says:

    I bought the Shorter Oxford Dictionary a good 40 years ago. When the new edition was published, I bought that and handed my old copy to my son. I can’t imagine living without a good dictionary. I even asked the price of the full Oxford Dictionary once when I saw the 30 odd volumes on display. (It was a LOT more than I could afford). Having said that, I have lent 1930s detective fiction to my American friend, and she has handed them back with the comment she gave up because she couldn’t understand the language. On enquiry, it was unfamiliarity with the slang phrases of the period. I have read a lot of American novels, and where I didn’t know the word and couldn’t work it out from context, I ask her or try Google. Never fails.
    I totally agree that there are books I find unreadable (Dickens springs to mind), but it’s the style not the vocabulary.
    Bryant and May are idiosyncratic, and delightful, but I can see that some people might find them difficult. I have little familiarity with London or its history, but it doesn’t worry me – I enjoy learning the odd things Bryant (and you!) come up with. I live in a city and like cities, maybe if I lived remotely I might be less entranced.
    You’re doing the right thing so far as I am concerned, anyway!

  5. Oskar from Sweden says:

    She got stuck during Raymond Land’s briefing? But those are always so funny! Christopher, if you published a volume consisting only of briefings from Raymond (or maybe his diary?), I would certainly buy it.

  6. Peter T says:

    In recent months, I’ve abandoned two books. They were both written in the early Victorian period with long, circuitous sentences and strings of superfluous adjectives. If I reach the end of a sentence without falling asleep, I’ve forgotten what it started with.

  7. Peter T says:

    For me, Bryant and May are beautifully readable, elegant English, nice use of words, no fat.

  8. Lyn Jackson says:

    I always look up unfamiliar words in books. Once I was asked by online dictionary if I could tell them where I came across the word. When I went to site to tell them ,every other correspondent had the same reference as me. So I assume the author made it up.
    Also enjoyable is to ‘google earth ‘any place reference. Great in the Bryant and May books. Great to explore London from my kitchen.

  9. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I find them easy to read. Yes, there is an occasional word that I don’t know, but I’m always happy to increase my vocabulary.
    I haven’t read Proust, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost or Ulysses. I started Moby Dick expecting to hate it ( don’t like boats, hate whaling) but I really enjoyed it.
    Please stay in the niche.

  10. David Ronaldson says:

    The writing is the pleasure as much as the plot; I wouldn’t want to lose your unique voice from the novels in an effort to “dumb down” or “aim at the less-able literary demographic” as I prefer to say

  11. Bernard says:

    Let us begin with the premise that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Add to that some people have no sense of humour. Further, pile on with some folk are just plain daft. So, no need to bother about the silly Aussie.

    Although it is presently closed, I browse through the mystery and suspense section of our public library every week or so to find bedtime reading. I generally ignore books where the author is represented by just one work: if I enjoy the book I want to read more of the author’s work so this avoids disappointment. Then I look at the title and dismiss most with deliberately nasty ones, I’m looking at you Peter James. Finally, I read the summary on the inside front jacket. It’s amazing how quickly this leads to books returning to the shelf – anything with fantasy, child victims, or gore.

    By the way “deep English” is a delightful description and I do hope you continue to write in it.

  12. Peter Dixon says:

    I find the most difficult books are really big ones (1k pages +) that drop onto the bridge of your nose when you fall asleep while reading in bed.

    A search suggested Barbara Cartland and Catherine Cookson, Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer as easy for readers but difficult for people who enjoy reading good writing.

    A lot of the ‘Mountain Peak’ books were written over 120 years ago and suggest a reading mentality that appreciated long discourse, remember that these people had no television or radio or film, so that their entire culture was enshrined in literature; the subtleties of language were more understood than today.

  13. Derek J. Lewis says:

    For me, Mr. Fowler your books encapsulate the essence of a good night in the pub with my mates. Where the conversation can switch between good humoured opinion and argument, cover the serious and the superficial and discuss a great slew of arcane and general knowledge that I find myself absorbing by an easygoing osmosis. That you’ve managed to combine this with killer plots and atmospheric writing make your books both readable and IMO re-readable. Sorry if anyone was expecting F.R Leavis

  14. Brian Evans says:

    For me, more than anything, it is the originality with B and M. Before they came along, my fave crime reading was Leslie Thomas and his (sadly too few” Dangerous Davies” novels. Again, like B and H, I was won over by the amount of humour, and wonderful characterisations of the entire cast. One was filmed in 1980 with Bernard Cribbins as the main character, and it was really good. It was one of the last films of the under-rated director Val Guest. More recently, they were filmed with the bland and miscast Peter Davison. Also, the screenplays were not in the spirit of the book-dull-, despite being written by the usually good Richard Harris.

    Count Arthur Strong has been mentioned on here,. To me, he is brilliant, but I have watched one or two episodes with friends, and they just couldn’t get on with it. I think B and M would have that effect on the same people-you either see the joke or don’t.

  15. Brian Evans says:

    The second sentence is a bit of a mess. Also, for B and H, read B and M. Natch.

  16. Joel Stein says:

    Hi Chris. Really hope you’re feeling better. I’m an American and have never had a bit of trouble reading any of the Bryant and May titles. I’ve always enjoyed every arcane reference and such. That said, I have spent a great deal of time in London and am perhaps a bit more educated than average. I fear writing is a very personal thing and not everyone will understand another persons way of thinking or of phrasing or word usage. All I can say is keep up the good work.

  17. Debra Matheney says:

    I’m with Joel, an American who finds the books not at all troublesome. Perhaps the friend has no sense of humor?
    Hope you continue to feel better. To everyone, stay safe.

  18. Roger says:

    I find Bryant & may – or the ones I’ve read – easy to read, because we know the characters and the ambience. I’m surprised youve never bothered with cryptic crosswords: much of my pleasure with B&M is in the allusions and references. The other books of yours I’ve read I alway have a pause as I start them because you are so varied (this is a compliment) in your writings and I’m not sure what we’ll get. I admire and trust you enough to keep on even if it doesn’t look like being my thing.
    Perhaps you’d have liked Proust more if you’d known our weedy hero was actually staring at boys and trying to work out if they had good shapes.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    I gave up on “Anarchy” and was startled to see the illustrations come to life in Beecham House. Mrs. Beecham is taking opium for her headaches and was wandering outside in her nightdress in the last episode. I am reading the Devlin Diary and Hannah (in 1672) is taking opium for her headaches.This cross-experiencing in books is one of the joys of reading. (Hannah’s maids just went down Carter’s Lane to the market and I jolted with the memory of walking down it.)
    It is the same thing with words. I have discovered that you are fond of the word crepuscular, a word with which I have trouble because it hints to me of corpse and I don’t know why. In Wyrd Sisters (I know you’re not fond of Pratchett but never mind) it is said that words are things, they are as real as any three dimensional object (or something like that) and it’s true. When you choose a word to represent a feeling, a thing, a person, you can create that object, etc. in the reader’s mind and if you’ve done it well the image will stay in their mind forever. It can only work, though, if you have the right word and the more you limit the number of words the less likely you are to use the right one. Slang is local to a time and/or place and has to be limited but “real” words, the ones accessible to the entire English speaking world, should all be part of the available pool. I loaned a B&M to a friend and hope to get it back eventually but I did think for quite a while that she “didn’t get it” because she was so emphatic that she didn’t want to damage it by reading it on the bus so it was taking a long time. Recently she announced that she is a convert, that the book was funny and interesting. I know she looks up words so perhaps that was it. I wonder what she has added to her vocabulary. (Crepuscular is of the twilight)

  20. Richard says:

    I’ve always thought the B&Ms trip along quite nicely from a language point of view. Which is quite a trick really, as they can go from well crafted lecture to Ealing comedy in the course of a single bit of character interplay. They aren’t dense and superior, or off-putting (like Burgess, or Self). I think the balance is just fine, and frankly, if you can write comedy that works, then you’re ahead of most writers.

  21. RH says:

    Reading Rune while waiting for the new B&M… enjoying it a lot but the soldering iron certainly stopped me in my tracks for a few moments…

  22. Roger says:

    Thinking back, the first book of yours I read was an M&B – can’t remember which, I’m afraid – but I had the feeling I sometimes have with a series of books when I first read one: that it was like walking into a pub you’d never been to before and recognising whether or not you’d like it at once. I’d guess it’s one reason why people write and read – or don’t – a series “All the conventions conspire
    To make this fort assume
    The furniture of home;”
    It is a kind of comfort reading – even comfort writing, perhaps – even if it is about an uncomfortable view of the world. Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald depict an uncomfortable world, but you know what kind of discomfort they’ll depict.

  23. Ian Luck says:

    Brian – I loved the ‘Dangerous Davies’ novels – and the film, with Bernard Cribbins was wonderful – eye opening too, when he knocks seven bells out of the yob on the tube train. Cribbins seems to be rather under-rated as an actor, which is sad – his stint on Doctor Who showed just how good he can be. As for B&M being hard to read – no, they’re not. The writing is always easy to understand, and paints pictures in your mind – I have a good idea of what the two Daves look like; the state of Arthur’s car; John’s apartment, etc., simply from the good use of words. There is no excessive verbiage, unlike some writers, who will use 25 words to say something that could be described perfectly with eight. ‘Deep English’? Isn’t that just proper English, when read by somebody who can’t actually be arsed to read at all, and needs any excuse not to? You keep on getting well, Chris – we’ll still be here to enjoy your books.

  24. Dawn Andrews says:

    Yes, it’s all in the names wirh Proust, Albert… ine. Within a Budding Grove is radiant and Ulysses is necessary reading to anyone who chooses to live in Ireland. Can’t imagine anyone not being enthralled by one of Raymondo’s briefings, especially in The Lonely Hour with the duo keeping a score card. Outstanding.

  25. John Howard says:

    Well, leaving aside the fact that Bryant & May are just readable, if it is a niche then I am happy to be in it.
    As for coming across words that you don’t know the meaning of, early on in my reading path I would occasionally ask my dad what a word I had just read meant. His response was to say, “look it up in the dictionary and when you know what it means come to me and let me know”. I learned much later on from my mother that he did that because often he didn’t know himself so was learning too. Taught me a nice lesson which I have used on my own kids.
    I have the dictionary on my own shelf now, much battered about and sellotaped up but it still gets used.

  26. Andrew Holme says:

    Bernard Cribbins also provided the best guest appearance on Fawlty Towers as the mistaken ( by Basil) hotel inspector. ” I’m not a violent man, Mr Fawlty”, before demonstrating he is, remains a Seventies highlight.

  27. admin says:

    This has been a useful corrective for me. I was about to remove a very obscure word from Mr Bryant’s mouth (‘Debrachiate’) and decided to leave it in. You’ll figure it out! Thanks all.

  28. Brian Evans says:

    To Ian and Andrew-I agree very much about Bernard Cribbins. He is very versatile. From voicing the Wombles to hit records such as “Right Said Fred. Not to mention being a very good stand-up comedian, often seen on “The Good Old Days”. In Norman Wisdom’s doomed attempt to widen his image in a P.G. Wodehouse film adaptation, “The Girl on the Boat”, he and Richard Briers totally steal the picture.

    He was also very good in a few of the “Carry-Ons” and fitted in well. However, according to a book about the films, and a biography of the producer Peter Rogers, he was sacked by Rogers due a disagreement with him. So was lovely Liz Fraser at around the same time. With Rogers, the “Carry-On” name was the star, not the actors. And the men more than the women. To his eternal disgrace he paid the lead actors such as Sid James and Kenneth Williams twice as much as the female stars Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims.

    Cribbins could also be a very good straight actor, and also excellent comedy relief in, eg, one of the “Doctor Who” films and “She”, the Rider Haggart adaptation starring Ursula Andress. (or “undress” as we called her at school.) I checked on Wiki, and at least he is an OBE, but “Sir” might be better. But get a move on-he’s 91. Ditto (at around the same age”) the wonderfully charismatic and indestructible Leslie Phillips, CBE, the Cary Grant of British pictures.

  29. Brian Evans says:

    PS, sorry Mr Admin, for wondering off the point!

  30. Nobody has mentioned your non-fiction books which are the ones I reread : Paper Boy and Film Freak are excellent and I dip into Forgotten Authors constantly. Please publish more non-fiction !

  31. Brian Evans says:

    Yes, Peter, brilliant reads. I laughed out load reading a bit of one of them in the shop, so bought it on the spot. Have the other one as well. And don’t forget the other non-fiction “The Book of Forgotten Authors”. Listen everyone, I’m not on commission, promise.

  32. Brian Evans says:

    I really keep having senior moments. It’s “Yes Paul…” Sorry.

  33. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I know what debrachiate means – please add another obscure one 😉

  34. Brooke says:

    What Cornelia said.

  35. Liz Thompson says:

    I read and thoroughly enjoyed the non fiction too! There were a lot of “forgotten” authors that I hadn’t forgot, but as I’m not much of a film goer, a lot of films and details that were completely new. And I liked the autobiography/memoir, whichever word you prefer, Admin.

  36. joel ivins says:

    I first started reading Bryant/may quite a few years ago, you had maybe 5 or 6 books of theirs written at the time, and what I read I thoroughly enjoyed…I have just found you again, and am starting back at book one…I am very much looking forward to going through the whole series…I am from the US, and have always found british humour to be wickeder and more clever than most of the stuff over here…what is life without a little challenge, a little learning?

  37. Bonnie Ferguson says:

    I’m late to the party here. I read all of B&M. I find reading or re-reading a particular novel depends more on my mood than on the writer’s gift. Some days re-reading The Murder fo Roger Ackroyd is very satisfying. Usually that indicates that I am avoiding something I should be doing. On others days, the challenge of B&M is a reward for a job well done. None of this has much to do with the writer and everything to do with me needs as a reader in that moment.

  38. Helen Martin says:

    Well, I didn’t know debrachiate, although I do now and at least I was headed in the right direction with ‘tearing the branches off?’

  39. Ian Luck says:

    I feel a song coming on: “I’m the King of the swingers, A jungle V.I.P.” etc.
    Brachiation. The preferred method of getting fom ‘A’ to ‘B’, for creatures like Gibbons, Orangoutangs, and lemurs.

  40. Ian Luck says:

    Brian – at least we ran out of turnip recipes long ago…

  41. Helen Martin says:

    Watching a program on Madagascar a few minutes ago and there were those lemurs debrachiating all over the island.

  42. Patricia Lin says:

    Dear Mr. Fowler, I do not find your books hard to read at all. Rather, I find them engaging, love hearing about the latest antics of the team and especially am fond of learning of history I did not know about. I have a PhD in European History (British) and lived in the UK for 2 years, mainly in London. I am back in the States now but it is always wonderful to read and find out about a new Bryant and May. And yes, some I have read twice! Keep up the great work!

  43. Carolyn Figueiredo says:

    As an American, I can say that I don’t know all the London locations, but I could look them up on a map. I don’t always know all the words, but that’s an easy fix with online dictionaries. Often I can work out the meaning from the context, imagine that! I love the characters in these books. I worry about Bryant and May because they are getting older. Which might lead to no more books! I would be heartbroken to lose these fine fellows. I guess it’s not the type of reading that appeals to everyone, however. I know for a fact it would be “too hard” for my mother because she wouldn’t want to bother looking up words she didn’t know, for one. And I doubt my sister would enjoy these books either, because she isn’t an avid reader and might not like the off-hand knowledge about historical places that Bryant relays. No, not everyone will like Bryant and May books, but for those of us who do like them, they are top-notch entertainment.

  44. admin says:

    Carolyn, I’d be more worried about the author getting older, which might lad to no more books!

  45. Peter Lee says:

    I find the B&M books easy to read, but “The Lonely Hour” was one of the few I’ve not enjoyed as much, I think because of the different style used in this one – revealing the killer at the start, and flipping between their narrative and the B&M side. My wife struggled a bit with it too, and her 85 year old mum, who loves the books, gave up on it about a third of the way through because she wasn’t enjoying it.

  46. Mary Shen Barnidge says:

    I always read your books twice, initially–the first time, all I care about is WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, and the second is to savor the progress (with a compact Oxford and a London A-Z by my side, though a foldout map is better). I’m a Yank, by the way–fair fluent in Elizabethan, Regency, Victorian and Blitz, but your characters are expanding my East End vocabulary.

  47. Sue Davies says:

    You don’t like Pratchett, we can’t be friends. But seriously we all have friends who don’t like everything we do or read or watch but we are still friends. I have been consuming the B&M avidly over the lockdown and they have saved my sanity. Thank you (and Warwickshire library ebooks librarians) for having such taste and wit. I love all the London history and I’m sure I’m going to read them all again. They would be incredible as Tv adaptations but there’s nowt such joy as the written word. My favourite word would be defenestrate and the history lesson that introduced that has stayed with me forever. I had to visit Prague eventually… Thank you and wishing you well.

  48. Bruce Rockwood says:

    I’ve read all of Bryant and May in order, found some more challenging than others but all accessible and surprising. I did find The Lonely Hour more different to decode than most. And like other books I like, they benefit from re-reading!

  49. Helen Martin says:

    Defenestrate! Sue, I had the same shock at that little bit of history.

  50. Wayne Mook says:

    It you water them down there is no guarantee people will read them.

    Keep writing as you do.

    Deep English, what an odd phrase, I guess it’s due to your love of underground rivers, I wonder what your friend would make of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London?

    Wayne.

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