Bryant & May: New Readers Start Here
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.