What Are The Bryant & May Books Really About?

Bryant and May

There are questions people in every profession ask each other. Apparently when actors who have played King Lear meet each other the first question is always, ‘How heavy was your Cordelia?’

Ours is, ‘Are you still writing those…’ along with a heavy implication that you should have given it up years ago. WS Gilbert’s fiancée asked him to give up the Savoy operas and concentrate on something he’d be remembered for.

When I first set out to write a mystery novel, it was based on my love of Golden Age tales, post-war domestic suspense and 1960s/1970s thrillers. I thought if I could find a way to update them all into the modern world it could make things interesting for me and perhaps a handful of readers. The books of my formative years appear so erudite now compared to their modern counterparts.

I quickly discovered not many writers were trying to do anything new with the genre. Most of them still aren’t; I can’t read another book about a missing child, an abusive father or a serial killer that brings nothing new to the table. Simply adding current fads (Zoom calls, TikTok, Wokeness etc) does not make a book modern.

But I had another problem; any summary of the Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries dooms reader interest; ‘Two elderly men use abstract methods to solve modern crimes’. Even I’m bored by the sound of that. What I should have done to engender easy understanding was set the series in 1950, but I wanted to satirise elements of modern life.

This proved a problem when it came to drumming up TV interest. Any producer lazily glancing at an outline saw a kind of ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ meets ‘Murder, She Wrote’, not realising what the books are really about.

And what are they really about?

Outsiders. They’re about how undisciplined thinkers solve logical problems. In other words, the reverse of Sherlock Holmes. It’s a very English mindset. The professor tinkering in the shed, the cleaning lady quietly taking courses in medieval manuscripts, the obsessives who muddle through to some greater truth. It’s universal, of course; I’ve friends in America who are very similar in outlook.

This made sense to me because it’s how I think. All my planning is subconscious. I don’t map out anything in advance. When my agent says, ‘I thought you were going to do that,’ I think, Did you? I didn’t. I have a theme, a clever twist and some characters. The rest is buried somewhere so deep inside me that I can’t access it until I’m physically writing.

The Bryant & May books are also about re-using English archetypes and creating new ones. I’ve shamelessly plundered postwar British films in the same way that Kim Newman has done. When ‘The Avengers’ TV series used lollipop ladies, nannies and milkmen as assassins they turned the normal on its head. I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to show that the old archetypes are all still with us.

It turns out that this low-concept approach to mystery novels has made quite a few staunch fans. Unexpected readers write in; Pete Townshend, who humbly bracketed (The Who) after his name as if people wouldn’t know who he is, has recently turned out to be a regular reader. In the past I’ve had letters from readers as varied as JG Ballard and Victoria Wood. I’m not very good at keeping correspondence but one letter I did keep was from a nurse thanking me for keeping her sane on night duty.

Illustration created by Sarah J Coleman for Inkymole Illustration Limited. Copyright in this image is reserved and protected in perpetuity by English law and the Bern Convention.

Television is for now ruled out. Our channels currently want stories that remove all credibility by having murderers shape-shift into each other’s bodies through the power of thought, the age of self-belief finally trumping the age of science. The lowly crime puzzle is now being buried beneath a welter of silly gimmicks.

But readers do get inspired by the books. Below, two composers, Mike Wilkie and Des Burkinshaw had a bash at writing TV theme tunes for Bryant & May. I like them both very much.

For each reader who discovers something they like inside the covers, there’s someone who can’t be persuaded to touch them; their preconceptions run too deep.

That’s fine. You can’t please everyone and some of the volumes in the series are pretty esoteric and densely plotted. I wanted to attempt every imaginable type of crime story except the most common one; the grim ultra-violent procedural. Both ‘Oranges & Lemons’ and the upcoming ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ are more like 1970s adventures than 1930s whodunnits.

Once again the subconscious has kicked in. When my agent read the 20th volume he said, ‘I could see this story was coming several books ago.’ My response was the usual one; Did you? I didn’t.

Around this article, some cover art, including the notorious dancing cat.

43 comments on “What Are The Bryant & May Books Really About?”

  1. fred slab says:

    I love those theme tunes. My first thought on hearing them was, radio serials. I had almost a false memory experience of how it would be to tune in and listen to the latest episode on the wireless – so vivid!

    Of course, nowadays, radio serials arrive via the medium of podcasts, and some of them are extraordinarily popular. And the production costs are way lower – so much easier to chop a cabbage in half than to film a decapitation.

    Which is all a roundabout way of saying, if you ever decide to fund a podcast via kickstarter, I’m in

  2. davem says:

    Interesting theme tunes … I prefer the first, but both work well

  3. Barbara Boucke says:

    The books work because I know what to expect and yet I don’t know what to expect. Bryant and May will have murders to solve – Raymondo, Janice, Meera, Colin, and everyone else will do what they do – and yet, do things that are unexpected. The characters evolve – which doesn’t always happen in mysteries both from the past and the present.
    Both the theme tunes are interesting. The first seems pulsating and I can see Arthur going along with the music in the background. The second is more “ambling” if that’s a description. But they both work, because – to me – they are like the books – familiar and yet changing. Thanks for the listen.

  4. Susan says:

    I love them because they’re such love letters to London – the city and its buildings and strange places always seems to be the most important character

  5. MaryR says:

    Love both of the theme tunes. And agree with Barbara Bourke. Both reflect different aspects. What is wrong with the TV commissioners – get ON with it, please!

    (Am still attached to Raymondo. God knows why. Working in the public sector, that’s partly why.)

  6. Line B says:

    The writer of Jonathon Fairfax (Christopher Shevlin) is probably reading his first Bryant and May since I forwarded what you wrote about his books to him.
    I like your books because they are human. Being odd myself and often going astray in my own mind I find comfort in that there are some fiction where people somewhat like me can be a bit of a hero. And I love that London is a character that I find myself googling and looking at on Google earth whilst I’m reading.
    I like the second theme tune best, I will play it when I start rereading a Bryant and May!
    Fridens from Sweden

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, the second theme for sure. The first one is very dramatic and ominous while the second one has a lot of unexpected jokes (like someone stumbling over the cat) and there is an overall pleasantness that sounds like our heroes out for a stroll while still carrying a seriousness about what they’re doing. It’s more complex, I think, and flexible for the re-use of bits in background sound. It just sounds like the books.

  8. bill051 says:

    Have there ever been thoughts of a radio dramatisation? Much easier to cast. Radio 4 audience is older than the detectives and it will still be being broadcast on Radio 4 Extra in fifty years.

  9. Roger says:

    Sullivan did give up the Savoy operas and concentrated on something he’d be remembered for…
    No-one knows what it was now.

  10. SteveB says:

    Funny enough, I was thinking just last night about your B&M books, and for me the books are almost like your interior dialogues and philosophies.
    It was really interesting to browse this evening to your website and find these thoughts.
    I’ve always liked and respected that every time you hit a groove with the series, you always moved on.
    Btw: Those ‘inverted stereotype’ stories of the Avengers were mainly by Philip Levene, an ex actor, not Brian Clemens.
    Totally off topic: Anyone seen this new Adam Curtis thing yet? Here in Germany it’s not available yet. Admin’s comment about ‘ the age of self-belief finally trumping the age of science’ is quite Curtis-y. Though I gather it’s about the myth of British history and how bad we all are really. Kind of original sin-ish. But I always love hos work even when I disagree.

  11. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Have you thought about doing a series of Bryant and May stories for radio or Big Finish Productions? Not audio books but free standing stories or serials. It could be fun and a way to try out ideas that may not yet rise to the level of a novel yet. I would subsco!

  12. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Subscribe, that is!

  13. Lisa Q. says:

    I’m only a fan (since I found White Corridor promoted as a book of the month upon release at the Oakland, California library in 2007), and you didn’t ask, but I feel the heart of the Bryant and May stories comes down to family. Literal family: John and April, Janice and [redacted], etc. Along with the family you choose: most obviouly: Arthur and John, but also Arthur and Alma, Meera and Colin, the entire PCU, even the Daves. London is also family, not just location. And we, the readers, vicariously join in as extended relations the more we read. I look forward to a new B&M book right around my birthday at the end of March like I would like forward to celebrating with friends and family.

    I’ll dearly miss the series when it ends, but family never really goes away, do they? They’re always there when you need them. This family of mine will just remain on a dedicated book shelf next to a Bryant and May match box and case.

  14. Liz Thompson says:

    Tune 1 for intro and cast list etc, tune 2 for incidental music during the performance. Am building up my audible collection of the books now.

  15. Peter T says:

    May I disagree on Sherlock Holmes? It’s not the reverse of him; it’s exactly the same process. The difference is that what is visible in your stories of B and M, the interactions with all the eccentrics, is hidden inside Holmes’ mildly autistic brain.

  16. brooke says:

    What Peter T. said. The process is the same.
    Mr. Fowler is forever trying to fool us by denying the close relationship between Arthur and Holmes. Both men have only one woman in their lives–the housekeeper–and one close friend named John whose mental faculties are rather slow. What would Arthur and Sherlock do without a pipe, really vile tobacco and prohibited drugs. Their libraries are similar–collections of oddments and case notes; neither cares for systemic learning and knowledge. What we would consider recondite, obscure, arcane is their normal. And what is the Peculiar Crimes Unit but Baker St. Irregulars modernized by including girls.

    However, the dead clever bit on Mr. Fowler’s part is following Doyle’s example by using a wide variety of human issues and characters in his stories. Carry on.

  17. I loved loved your books I love your humor your French little remarks you make me laugh I love reading about the
    London historical past I love Mr Bryant and Mr May I have read many many mysteries for the last 60 years so
    far yours are the best I am so happy that I found you.

  18. don’ t change too much .

  19. At first, I thought that nostalgia drove my love of the books. I soon realised it’s actually about the part of the present that many of us are still living but which is lost to my daughter’s generation (she is 13). It’s more like anticipated-nostalgia. There seems little playfulness or breadth in her school education compared to mine at a strange 70s comp in Luton. While I get 50%+ of B&M’s references (75% on a good day), I suspect many of the 20-22 year olds I deal with would struggle to get 10%. For example, as a filmmaker, I deal with a lot of recent graduates who want to make film. One guy I met 2 years ago, when I asked him what his favourite film was, said Toy Story. I was naturally keen to find out the rest of his Top 10. I asked if he had seen Mean Streets. No, Citizen Kane? No. Manhattan? No. He had been studying film.
    So if you sighed reading that (true) story, then you probably love B&M for similar reasons to me – they are funny, moving, insightful, wise, and enshrine an intellectual world a lot of middle-aged and older readers feel is disappearing. I do know a young woman from an estate in Hackney who is about to start Classics at Oxford, but she is a rarity. And she still probably hasn’t seen Citizen Kane.
    I suspect it’s all the internet’s fault:) Whatever, B&M have stopped being about the past but the disappearing present.

  20. Jonah says:

    I’m wary when favorite books become TV series or movies. I mean favorites from the last 3 or 4 decades, instead of, for want of a better phrase, “the established classics”. We’re so used to any number of, say, Sherlock Holmes and Peter Pan adaptations that we’re hardly surprised at their departures from their sources. That said, I wish Hollywood would stop mucking about with Doctor Dolittle.
    Although I’m wary of Bryant and May becoming a TV series, if it happened in the near future, I’d vote for Terence Stamp as John May, still somewhat a heartthrob in his early 80s. A total fantasy pick (because he’s long dead) would be Charles Laughton as Bryant. Now that I think of it, how about Laughton’s biographer, actor Simon Callow as Bryant?
    Ageism is rife on American TV, too. In the USA back in the 1990s, the CBS network was first in viewership, with popular series centered around senior characters played by Angela Lansbury, Buddy Ebsen, Dick Van Dyke. CBS was mocked as a channel for old fogies and perceived as out-of-date. Worse, CBS placed low in ratings with the prized 18-49 age bracket by advertisers. (What a 40 year old’s purchases have in common with a 18 year old’s is beyond me. And why is 49 still the magic cut-off age?) As the decade wore on, CBS cancelled these programs despite their high general ratings.
    Today, on CBS, and on the other American broadcast networks, some older actors are regulars, sometimes top-billed, in multi-character dramas and procedurals (Tom Selleck in “Blue Bloods”, Mark Harmon in “NCIS” which has been on the air so long he was young when the series began), but series centered on people over 50 are few and usually turn up only on streaming channels, such as “Star Trek: Picard” on CBS All Access, “Grace and Frankie” on Netflix.

  21. mike says:

    I see Michael Palin as John May And Toby Jones as Arthur.
    What tv would probably give us is Thandie Newton and Benedict Cumberbatch.
    Did you see what tv did with Terry Pratchett’s Watch?

  22. Jan says:

    I’d go along with what Susan said above London is the real perhaps the truest character in your stories.

    I used to 2 think of the city as only the backdrop to the tales – especially in the early novels – but it’s not – it’s more than that with the exception of “White Corridor” + to a lesser extent the Punch + Judy story the city itself is essential to making them work.

    I will e mail some stuff across soon (ish) am a bit tucked up at present.
    Hope all going ok.

  23. Jan says:

    I’d go along with what Susan said above London is itself perhaps both a star + a true character in your stories.

    I used to 2 think of the city as only the backdrop to the tales – especially in the early novels – but it’s not – it’s more than that( with the exception of “White Corridor” + to a lesser extent the Punch + Judy story ) the city is itself essential in making them work.

    I will e mail some stuff across soon (ish) am a bit tucked up at present.
    Hope all is going ok.

  24. Barbara Boucke says:

    I re-read what you wrote and what everyone else has written in their comments. As the writer you have your own perceptions, ideas … about how you want the story and the characters to evolve and that includes the settings – because they are certainly an integral part of the books. As readers, each of us brings our own perceptions into what we are reading. We like or don’t like characters, think maybe something should have been done differently. “see” characters that remind us of those in other books past or present. But in the end (for me anyway) the Bryant and May books are a place I choose to be. The nurse who wrote you the letter about Bryant and May keeping her sane on night duty said it well. Reading something we enjoy gives us time to recoup. When my mother was taking care of my dad who had Alzheimer’s, she would – at the end of the day – read Dick Francis, Alastair MacLean, or sometimes Regency romances. The books allowed her to put her mind somewhere else. So thank you for Bryant and May. I look forward to London Bridge is Falling Down complete with descriptions of the City, boiled sweets, beetroot sandwiches, and possible references to Gilbert and Sullivan amidst the crime(s), the path everything takes, and the solution.

  25. John Griffin says:

    Values, real genuine interpersonal values; whether honourable or perverse. The resonance of place. And a bloody good sense of humour edged with regret, sorrow etc. Something almost totally lacking in much crime fiction. Depth.

  26. Derek j Lewis says:

    Also, it’s the same slightly anti-authoritarian snark that makes those wartime and immediate post-war Ealing comedies so deliciously subversive, whilst still being comfortably british

  27. SteveB says:

    @ Des Burkinshaw your post is really depressing and scary
    A film student whose favourite film is Toy Story and never even saw Citizen Kane is pretty scary but i’m honestly not sure it’s typical.
    We have a work experience student every year in our small biz in London and despite all this wokeness stuff on the news, the actual students we get always seem pretty ‘normal’ to me.

  28. Paul C says:

    A favourite crime novel in the Golden age style is ‘The False Inspector Dew’ by Peter Lovesey (1982) which is set in the 1920s. Fabulous book I’ve read for sheer pleasure many times.

  29. Helen Martin says:

    Alright, Paul, what makes it fabulous and of what does the pleasure consist? I am asking this after reading Admin’s comments a couple of posts further on.

  30. Paul C says:

    Hi Helen – I think ‘The False inspector Dew’ satisfies all of Mr Fowler’s criteria – the convincing characters who react realistically instead of mechanically in to serve the plot, interesting prose writing which is a pleasure to read, original ideas, a zinger of an ending and he captures the 1920s perfectly. The book usually (always ?) appears in lists of the best crime novels ever written and deservedly so. You can enjoy reading it over and over even when you know the climax. His novels featuring the Victorian detective Cribb are enjoyable too – try ‘Waxwork’ and ‘A Case of Spirits’.

  31. Michael Rouse says:

    In lockdown for February I have set myself the challenge of reading all the Bryant and May novels in order. I am now halfway through The Bleeding Heart and loving them all – the characters and finding out so much about London itself. I will be 81 in a few weeks, my sight is failing and little chance of a cataract operation in the present times, I suffer from heart failure but if Arthur Bryant can keep going, then so can I.

  32. Ian Luck says:

    Des – your blank student does not surprise me at all. Some years ago, a survey was carried out, possibly by the British Film Institute (BFI), which asked simply about watching black and white movies. Depressingly, most younger viewers said that they would never watch a B&W movie, ever. Reasons given, were of the usual ‘Millennial’ kind: ‘Boring’, ‘Old Fashioned’, ‘Stupid’, and ‘They should only show colour films, because old films are no good’. Notwithstanding, ‘Toy Story’ is now 26 years old, and is an ‘Old Film’. It’s very good indeed, so that argument doesn’t hold water. I first saw ‘Metropolis’, ‘Das Kabinett’, and ‘Nosferatu’ in my early teens, and was blown away by them. Oh, and they were all silent, too, which was another thing the stupid kids said they wouldn’t tolerate. Me and like minded friends spent a lot of time and money, in our teens, watching as many Film Noir (‘The Big Combo’ is still a favourite of mine), horror and sci-fi movies as we could. Most, if not all were monochrome, and we loved them. Most were far, far better than most of the dreck foist upon us nowadays. It’s depressing though, when people’s worldview (on any subject) is only of the last twenty years or so.

  33. Ian Luck says:

    Paul C – I enjoyed Peter Lovesey’s ‘Cribb’ stories. I was also fond of the late 1970’s TV show of the same name, which was produced to the same high standards as the later, and long-running ‘Sherlock Holmes’ TV series, starring Jeremy Brett.

  34. IAN MASON says:

    One of the (many) things I love about the Bryant & May novels is how the characters of the Peculiar Crimes Unit develop and inter-react as the series progresses. Regarding getting the books onto TV I would have thought it would be far more attractive to producers to present the stories as featuring the Unit as an ENSEMBLE – mixed ages, ethnic variety etc – in which the lead detectives happen to be elderly, rather that making their age a head-on issue. After all, they bought the idea of Hustle, in which a very elderly Robert Vaughan was perfectly acceptable – as part of a team. “THE PECULIAR CRIMES UNIT” sounds to me like a TV series. “BRYANT & MAY” maybe not. I wish you luck with this.
    Ben Aaronovitch has managed to get a TV deal, I really hope you do too. Best wishes,

  35. Helen Martin says:

    One would hope that if a deal were ever struck that the (?) purchaser would at least scan quickly through these posts so as to have at least some idea as to the audience.
    (I get caught up in these peculiar sentences and then have trouble getting myself out from a grammatical point of view.)

  36. Satyavati D'Antoni says:

    All I can say is, I’m glad you are younger than I so that there is the possibility of ‘forever’ looking forward to the next Bryant and May! The story collection is wonderful, and your comments a delight. Thank you from Eugene, Oregon, USA.

  37. Ian Luck says:

    Ben Aaronovitch was a TV writer before he was a novelist, writing for ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Casualty’. He probably still knows people, who know people who etc.

  38. Dee says:

    I love the books. In Oranges and Lemons, though, chapter 28, Bryant finishes his coffee and puts the cup in his pocket and then a few paragraphs later is drinking it again! Talk about peculiar!

  39. Jan says:

    Thats really good thinking the stuff Ian Mason said.

    Any of your novels would make a powerful ensemble piece.

    I’ve often wondered why no ones ever sussed this one out and written a crime drama like this before. Taking it from the P.O.V of the guys doing the house to house enqs., to the office manager (likely Janice) doing tel enqs, allocations etc. Plus all the computer stuff now. Then theres the statement takers and. interviewing teams. Blokes searching all the security videos.
    Would be a quite unusual B+M novel with lots of comic possibilities of you told story in this way

  40. Jan says:

    Are they making a series of the “Rivers of London”! That could be excellent or pretty tragic. They are great books though.

  41. Joel says:

    For Ian Luck and other Brett fans – he couldn’t be Sherlock – Holmes was thin and austere. Jeremy Brett, a first class actor, humanised Holmes too much. And… Too many films and tv portray Watson as a twit. He was a military medic, with campaign experience, quite sharp in his own way; he couldn’t be as bright as Holmes, thus giving and filling the ‘blank page’ to the audience. No, the only good Holmes was the late Douglas Wilmer.

    Mr Cumberbatch was good in the earliest modern Holmes series, but as the plots became more ludicrous (the swimming pool fight scene was humanly impossible) and the original stories mangled (my favourite, the Bruce-Partington Plans was murdered far worse than Cadogan West was) so much that watching them became impossible, and to some degree predictable. You knew who was going to die, who did it, and sometimes even why long before the denouement. Too much crash-bang-wallop, too little intellectual challenge.

  42. Elizabeth Toews says:

    Just finished Oranges and Lemons. Long waiting list at the library. I love Bryant’s walking tours. Even though I live in Canada my parents were both Londoners who lived in the Square Mile. I knew all the references in Bryant’s list at the end and I have Elisabeth Welch’s autograph in Mums old autograph books. The grandmother’s family in the past, Liv at Ludgate Hill. My dad grew up over the Nat Pro bank on Princes Street. New when he moved in. My mum at the Mayor’s Court. Lots of stories.! Did you know the writer Clemence Dane took her mom de plume from the church?
    Thank you for your fun and erudite stories!

  43. Elizabeth Toews says:

    Please excuse errors. Still have drops from eye exam. Look like a belladonna Regency gal.

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