20 Years Of Bryant & May!

The Arts

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?


30 comments on “20 Years Of Bryant & May!”

  1. Wayne (the other one) says:

    Well, I for one can’t wait for Oranges and Lemons’. As for the blank screen in front of you, well i’m sure it won’t be that for very long. I have always liked those curious facts you place in the books. I have very often looked things up to see if they have come from your imagination or from real life. Oh and its so nice that you think I come from a small dedicated band of intelligent, curious beings. It’s not something have really considered myself to be before….

  2. davem says:

    Congrats on the 20th B&M Chris, I look forward to it.

    I also agree with Stephen King, quality must be paramount.

    Any plans for more short stories? They have always been my favourite.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    Congratulations Chris. I hope you don’t change anything. They are great as they are, and have an originality.which I think is the secret of their success.

    Off topic, but I am just finishing one of the books on your Christmas reading list you set us for homework. It’s “The Husband’s Story” Norman Collins. Excellent. I have read most of his books, but hadn’t come across this one. He really does have a way with words and is great at description. Though like much written in the past by men-just a tiny bit misogynistic.

    I will have my essay on your desk by first thing Monday morning.

  4. admin says:

    Good work, Brian. You may wish to try ‘The Governor’s Wife’, which gives Evelyn Waugh a run for his money.

    The short stories will be appearing in complete collection soon – we’re in negotiation at the moment.

  5. Jo W says:

    I am looking forward to Oranges and Lemons and now there is another. I’ll must keep saving (and breathing) until next year. Good news about the short story collection,btw!
    Agree with you, # Brian, about Norman Collins. I have read and enjoyed five of them,including the Husband’s Story,which was my Festive period homework too. I didn’t think that it was written in a misogynistic way,though. I thought that the wife was quite obnoxious. Next book in the pile is The Governor’s Wife which I started last year then put down,for some reason I forget. Try,try again.
    Christopher, as a reader and commenter, am I intelligent, small or do I just look curious? Keep up the good work,sir.

  6. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Very glad that you won’t be dumbing down.
    I love the rabbit holes I disappear down with every book, and always find something worth looking up.
    Diversity? Name another series featuring someone who has Diminished Spatial Awareness.

  7. Roger says:

    Come on! The suspense is killing me,

    ” ‘The Governor’s Wife’, which gives Evelyn Waugh a run for his money.”…but which Waugh?

  8. Liz Thompson says:

    Good news about collected short stories. Keep the random/esoteric/bizarre etc facts in the books. And the odd places and buildings. They’re a treat.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Looking forward to the short stories.
    Couldn’t sleep last night so there I was reading The Lonely Hour at three in the morning. Good company and there was the 1928 flood on the Isle of Dogs that was mentioned a couple of days ago.
    The snow kept up all night and today is a snow day for schools from West Vancouver to Hope. It’s very quiet out there.
    Can you believe we live in an area where you can say in all seriousness and accuracy that something is beyond Hope but not yet at Hell’s Gate?
    Don’t think I’ll be teaching calligraphy tomorrow. Lonely Hour is a good long read.

  10. Jo W says:

    Keep warm Helen!

  11. Adam says:

    Congratulations! My favourite series of books, and long may John & Arthur continue on their journeys.

  12. Wim says:

    Just keep up the good work!

  13. Jan says:

    Stay in the warm Helen its not cold here but stormy with very high winds. Wednesday was bright and sunny though. Keep wrapped up warm and don’t be venturing out if you don’t have to.

  14. John Howard says:

    Love the way “Full Dark House” and “The Water Room” are sun bleached. (Just checked my copies to make sure).
    I think you might have realised that we all love Bryant and May but will also read anything you write.
    I can remember reading “The Water Room” and feeling damp when I was reading bits. Can’t ask for more than that when reading.

  15. Eliz Amber says:

    ‘The Lonely Hour’ has been languishing in my ‘currently reading’ list for a month because I haven’t felt brainy enough to review it. Mysteries usually come down to a murder plot and character – some are very well written, and some are forumulaic, but they usually don’t reflect much on the circumstances surrounding the murder.

    As much as the series is about atmosphere, it’s also about relationships, or in this case, disconnections. It’s the point at which Bryant and May crossover from genre to literary novel.

  16. brooke says:

    What Eliz Amber said.

  17. Nigel says:

    Looking forward to the new releases, and enjoy the myriad strange facts that have me reaching for a dictionary( or rather, Google).
    Love Helen’s comment above, about being “beyond Hope, but not yet at Hells Gate.
    To which I can only add ” I’m coming from Killinaman, and I’m going to Kilmore”.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Hope is a town at the end of the Fraser River Canyon and Hell’s Gate is the site of a godola that crosses the river at a narrow point in the canyon where there was a tremendous landslide in 1913 that cut off the spawning salmon and thus damaged the 4 year cycle for years afterward. We use the pair as comments on life when we’re not referring to the actual location.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Excuse, please, that should be gondola.
    The strong men arrived a while ago to shovel our long walk but now it’s snowing again. The temperature is up to 0 and there are icicles so the worst may be over. Everything shut down yesterday so perhaps I ought to be reading White Corridor.

  20. Suzanne Mortimer says:

    Having read all the library copies of Bryant and May books, I decided to collect them all. Thank you they are still great reads the second time around. And yes, I have had to search in my dictionary yet again for the meanings of many of Arthur’s sayings.
    Having just reread The Burning Man, I wanted to point out that Lewes isnt the only town that burns effigies of unpopular people. Edenbridge in Kent, has a large bonfire society and yes they burn giant effigies every year and have the best firework displays that I have ever seen anywhere.

  21. Suzanne Mortimer says:

    Oh I meant to add that Roofworld was the first book that I read of yours. It took quite some tracking down but I have managed to buy a very well used copy and I enjoyed rereading it. It was the book that taught me to look up at the London roof tops, an easy task when travelling by coach to Victoria and in congested traffic. Anyway I spotted another lighthouse carved into an insurance company building and a strange chimney like structure close to Victoria station with a type of light on top. Airvent? Mysterious anyway.

  22. Wayne Mook says:

    I like Godola it sounds like a pedalo peddled by a man with a long white beard (copyright Sistine Chapel.) or maybe a punt done by the same figure when Charon is on holiday.

    Stay warm Helen, and I hope the weather breaks soon.


  23. Jim Devlin says:

    Five other books? I count ROOFWORLD, RUNE, DARKEST DAY, and SOHO BLACK. Let me know what else I need to add to my collection…

  24. Shirley says:

    I just finished The Lonely Hour and I was very upset with John being shot. I think his role is under appreciated and I’m not sure I could another book without him. No other character could replace him.

  25. admin says:

    Jim, they’re in The Casebook.

  26. J. Folgard says:

    I love this series, it’s reliable in a good way -never lazy or predictable, just wonderful characters in a brilliantly skewed world. Your novels made me interested in british & london folklore, each new volume is a delight. Thank you for writing them!

  27. Gary Locke says:

    I took a few days this December to read LONDON’S GLORY and it was one of the most delightful times I’ve spent in ages. I tell everyone who will listen to read these books. My wife, a bookseller for over 40 years, recommends Bryant & May to her customers with the words, “My husband adores this series.”
    My wife is prone to understatement.

  28. Sue says:

    I love this series and am always looking forward to the next book.

  29. Damien Palmer says:

    Laugh out loud at the humour (really do). Learn new words (more per one B&M than a big bag of other books). Fascinated by the history. Made curious by some mystery and get the chance to inhabit an imaginary London with some fascinating people. Know the books won’t be dumbed down. Hope Christopher Fowler wants to keep writing for another thirty years.I enjoy these fictions more than any series being written.

  30. Bennett Hammond says:

    I geatly enjoy the language you use. In the Lonely Hour your reference to Southerners and Glaswegians seemed particularly lovely for an English writer to say. I have had the honor of paying for many PCU books twice – my wife read and passed several on to her friends before she let me in on it, mid-stream, and I had to go back and get them.

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