Should Bryant & May Mention What Happens In The Real World?

Bryant and May, London

Today I fell back with relief into the fictional world of Bryant & May, staging a scene that involves an argument between Dan Banbury and John May over paint, an African parrot and a murder on a restaurant staircase. I don’t know if it will reach the second draft yet, it’s a bit mad.

The restaurant is in a real location, and as usual there’s a background chatter of what’s happening to us all in the real world. Previous books have touched lightly on present times, commenting on economic migrants, refugees, changes in law, the closure of public spaces, violent crime statistics, democracy and so on; enough to upset one angry Republican reader in the US who accused me of dragging a political agenda into murder mysteries. I have no problem with supporters of either side so long as they can articulate their choice without resorting to the old, ‘I don’t have to justify myself to you’ because it’s not like liking a piece of art; it’s people’s lives.

So when the entire planet is hit by a life-changing event that will either affect us for years to come or be turned into simply another dropped stitch in life’s rich tapestry, should it be reflected or at least mentioned in fiction? Especially when that fiction is intended  to provide an escape from reality? The Bryant & May books are not quite procedurals. They are certainly not cosies and have absolutely no fantasy elements. If anything, I remove true details because they sound fake. How could I invent a St Pancras head pathologist called Bentley Purchase when that really was the senior pathologist’s name?

Becoming too attached to the real world creates its own set of problems. As I’ve pointed out before, the books are spaced differently to the real world because the timeline is truncated in the novels. To mention coronavirus in passing is fine – context – but to place them in lockdown would be wrong – specificity – so in the second draft I’ll add atmosphere and flavour, plus it’s where the more topical jokes go in. But I think I need to avoid the level of topicality that places them entirely within the rules of our world.

First drafts are like rough cuts of films, draggy and paceless, crucially missing connections between characters. When action films are assembled they’re missing the key element audiences like best; the action, much of which may be second unit or awaiting effects. A book’s second and third drafts put in all the joy, but built into that first dull draft are the key elements, one of which is the atmosphere of the location at the time when the book is being written, and that is unavoidable. In fact, to remove this sense of London Now would be to force attention upon its absence.

My take is this; The London of Bryant & May is the London it really is in spirit, and always has been, whether it’s occupied by Sid James or Amy Winehouse or Stormzy. The London I know is there but wish there was more of, the London that has been dismantled in my lifetime and replaced with something less quirky, more anodyne. I feel like a painter-decorator trying to tack up the ornamentation that got stripped away from this city rather than being restored, which was too expensive and too much trouble.

Other countries imagine your own by compiling the parts of your city they wish to see themselves. To America London is forever rainy and filled with ancient buildings, just as Paris is reduced to baguettes and the Eiffel Tower, when the truth is that you’re more surrounded by McDonald’s outlets than boulangeries. But Paris reinvents itself constantly as the City of Light. Watch ‘La Haine’ if you want to see a more realistic Paris – and that film is now 20 years old!

London for me is a blur of all the things it has been in my life, and by extension my detectives’ lives. And so this present experience will find its way in – just not in the way you might expect it to.


27 comments on “Should Bryant & May Mention What Happens In The Real World?”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    I am re-reading The Water Room and have read a passage which rather jolted me. In all the books Arthur mentions other cases they’ve had but I didn’t expect it in this book so when there is a mention of a Bengal tiger’s claw as a memento of a case I did stop abruptly. I ended my thinking with the conclusion that all the stories take place between the first book and the second with out of time items being caused by Arthur’s peculiar memory function and the book order being irrelevant. Getting the feeling of the Lockdown (it does require a capital) will either be inevitable or impossible. It does have to be in there, though, because re-reading brings back the events of the real time, especially in the more recent books.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    If you wanted to mention the lockdown, you could set a story slightly in the future, and have a character refer to it indirectly, eg., “Ah. 2020. The year for which plants and randy animals, spring arrived – and which for humans, didn’t.”
    That kind of approach.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    May I intrude a commercial note here? Yes, well, will not take pre-orders for Oranges and Lemons. All they tell me is that they “cannot deliver to this address” and it appears to be pandemic connected. Have other people been given this response and what about people who booked earlier?

  4. Martin Tolley says:

    “And after the news we make our daily visit to the Archers in Ambridge which remains coronovirus free . . .”

  5. admin says:

    Helen, I’m getting orders accepted from both UK and US so it may just be Canada for some reason – let me check.

  6. snowy says:

    Instinctively it’s a No from me, [not that my opinion matters in any way], by the time it his the shelves it will be as stale as a week-old baguette.

    But there are ideas to explore around people in voluntary and involuntary confinement. [Admittedly not the question you actually asked!]

    The idea of the boys entering a convent, where John causes much heart-fluttering and Arthur winds up the Mother Superior has a certain appeal.

    [It then descends into variations on the theme, Monastery, [been done], Gated Community, [sort of done in ?Wild Chamber?], Care Home, [probably too out-of-town], Ship whose crew are quarantined in Tilbury Docks, Barracks – sealed by military order, Home for Retired Actresses – rehash of Nunnery, but with a bit more sauce. I’ll stop there and let my esteemed co-commentators add their much better thoughts.]

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Care home might be a bit close to home for May (Oops) but could work but I don’t know how close to central London you’d find one. Tilbury Docks would certainly work and we haven’t had ships. I rather like that.
    Schools would be a possibility but what kind of school? Not a boarding school – Bryant would hate it – and how would a day school get locked down except by some sort of terrorism and I don’t think we want that twisty thing.
    How about one of the markets with something terribly contagious locking everyone in until it’s traced or eliminated or whatever?
    A touring theatre company. They get back to home base in (rats) there’s a cathedral and the Golden Hind is there. Turns out they’ve picked up something that quarantines them.
    Enforced quarantine is easy but shutting oneself in voluntarily is harder. Fear would be a good motivator so – we don’t want to be followed so we hide away. Who are we, though? This sounds like 77 clocks.
    – we are criminals who don’t want to get caught. Computer fraud? May’s case unless there is another side.
    That’s the best I can do at the moment.
    Thanks for looking into it, Chris. I hadn’t thought about the problem starting this side of the ocean.

  8. Kim Froggatt says:

    Perhaps Bryant and May could encounter a murderer who kills victims with a poison that can mimic Coronavirus symptoms but the pathology doesn’t quite fit. It passes everyone by, goes unnoticed and nobody is suspicious, other than Arthur, of course!

  9. Jan says:

    it might be quite difficult to actually set an investigation within this lockdown period because basically that sort of investigation is hardly occurring any more….

    Friends still serving say crime pretty much in the scale and volume we are used to has simply fallen through the floor. There are a few very sad revenge crimes involving families or drugs disputes (but supply lines between cities have been very seriously disrupted) and muggings/street robberies gone wrong ending up in tragic and pointless deaths still do occasionally occur but in the main the corona virus has taken over on the tragic and pointless loss front. Stealing NHS ID cards by way of street robbery has become fashionable because of discounts free coffees etc. Unbelievable but true.Not just the ID they will take purse and bankcards as well you understand but areas around hospitals are being targeted and demands for NHS id are being made.

    Domestic violence units are extremely busy. Imagine spending lockdown with your abuser. Truly chilling. Anti-social behaviour illegal gatherings + parties are all chugging along.

    Be interesting to try and insert a mystery into this time period unless maybe it had a touch of James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcocks “Read Window” that might work…

  10. Laura Humphrey says:

    I wonder if Bryant and May could have Decameron time, entertaining each other by telling stories of what happpened once upon a time

  11. snowy says:

    Involuntary confinement was touched on lightly in ‘Hall of Mirrors’, but more as a setup rather than a theme. But if we take the idea of a ship and indulge in a bit of ‘literary consequences’ it does open the door to an exchange like:

    “How did anybody know there were people on the ship?”

    “Well it’s a bit strange, Officers were called to a domestic between a crane driver and a ham radio operator. When they got there the radio operator had gone a bit odd – he seem to be obsessed with the idea that they were suffering from ‘Yellowjack’. But take that with a pinch of salt, after that his statement chiefly concerns ‘trays of bread pudding’ and ‘the weather in Tokyo”

  12. Jan says:

    I have been me usual numpty self Arthur would revel in bypassing the normal methods of investigation. He would tgrive. Cold cases anyone?

  13. Jan says:

    Or he just might thrive Mr Bryant

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    Part of the answer lies in how long and what will happen with the Convid-19, which is already dated as the 19 refers to the year it was identified. The books have lots of details of the past and the presence is just the past being created. As you noted yourself if it doesn’t fit, sounds fake don’t use it. The story and characters drive the plot and if lockdown doesn’t fit this then don’t use it, unless it makes the story feel fake.

    In lockdown it’s easier to see who is moving around, so mysterious crimes come to light easier as how is it possible for the suspect to get around? What if there is an outbreak of Spanish Flu, or another ‘old’ infection takes hold but spread out in an odd ways, the Plague Cloth story from the mediaeval times springs to mind.

    As to ships; what about islands or as you call them on the Thames, Aits or Eyots , (I can’t help but think Pieces of Ait {history of pirates and wreckers} or a Pattern of Aits {A Pattern of Islands was the 1st British fiction film in Cinema Scope made as Pacific Destiny, although it is about colonial past and a colonial administrator in the C20th.} although some of the Islands are Peninsulas (always were or are now) and some that have been reclaimed or bits just built over, like Thorney Island which was an eyot, and still has the Thorney Island Society, plus some abbey and palace, which also allows to shoehorn in Offa. There are some very dull and some fascinating islands on the Thames but I guess it’s how far up and down the river you want to go. Isleworth Ait has the German hairy snail on it. I’m not suggesting Canvey Island and Dr. Feelgood, honest.

    Oddly enough the things that tend to date novels the most are attitudes and words used, especially of the author/narrator, and details, the big stuff not so much. I’m currently reading a novel from the 30’s and it’s the free use of some words and the attitudes they convey is the most jarring thing.


  15. Ian Luck says:

    How about a body being found amongst the bells of ‘Longplayer’ in the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf? Longplayer is a collection of Tibetan Singing Bowls and gongs, programmed to play, and not repeat a sequence for a thousand years, at which point, if it’s still working, it will start all over again, on Dec.31, 2999. It’s an interesting site for a crime, which would be unfamiliar to a lot of people. It would probably fascinate Arthur, and frustrate John. I thought of it when moving books around, and found my copy of ‘Secret London – An Unusual Guide’, by Rachel Howard and Bill Nash. It’s my sort of guidebook. Some well known bits, but lots of surprising corners, too. I would not be at all surprised to find that Arthur owns a copy.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, I liked that idea of the singing bowls and you’re right that Arthur would love them. Another thought on ships would be to have a ship arrested (for unpaid fees or a legal suit against the owners) and then have a murder which would bring in our unit – can’t have foreign hanky panky going on on our docks. The ship would be held for the duration of either the law suit or the investigation whichever is longer. Having it near the bowls would add another element of interest or irritation depending on the personalities of the crew.A ship arrest can be quite complex. We’ve had them in both Montreal and I think here in Port of Vancouver as well. It could be either a British or a foreign ship, too.

  17. John Howard says:

    I agree on the No to ‘in lockdown’. When I read the books, and I haven’t really thought about this ’till now, I feel as though I go into Arthur and John’s London, not the London at the time of writing. Lockdown and Covid would be irrelevant as I don’t think of the timeline as being current at all. Even though each book may have current topics dotted about in them I think it is testament to the writing that I don’t feel as though I am reading a contemporary novel I am reading a Bryant and May novel. This is not a bad thing and certainly doesn’t jar.
    As Wayne says, if it doesn’t feel right to you, don’t use it. If it feels right, use it.

  18. Jan says:

    It’s not so much really the COMMITTING of the crime that would trip you up its how you carry out the subsequent investigations.

    Especially with a small very limited number of investigating officers. Add in a very real possibility of no witnesses or witnesses it would be a nightmare to interview because of shielding issues and you the yourself up in right knots.

    Just to add in to the general hilarity your SIOs are both of an age where they would be stuck @ home. I mean if you really want to push somebody else forward into the driving seat here’s your chance. But take away your real hero teccy A.B. and your’e still a bit stuffed.

  19. Jan says:

    It’s not so much really the COMMITTING of the crime that would trip you up its how you carry out the subsequent investigations.

    Especially with a small very limited number of investigating officers. Add in a very real possibility of no witnesses or witnesses it would be a nightmare to interview because of shielding issues and you tie yourself up in right knots.

    Just to add in to the general hilarity your SIOs are both of an age where they would be stuck @ home. I mean if you really want to push somebody else forward into the driving seat here’s your chance. But take away your real hero teccy A.B. and your’e still a bit stuffed.

  20. linda ayres says:

    I feel Mr Bryant’s views on lockdown and his total refusal to comply would require a whole volume by itself.

  21. snowy says:

    …I’m blaming this on heavy rain and cabin fever…

    The Mother Superior swept into the room, her grey habit billowing like a punctured barrage balloon making one last desperate escape attempt.

    “You may sit down”, she instructed in the sort of voice not heard since Peggy Mount gave up the Capstan Full Strength.

    “I was absolutely opposed to allowing any men to enter the walls of the convent, but when your assistant told me your ages I decided your were too old to cause any mischief”. Arthur’s mood brightened at the implied challenge and had his hands not been occupied trying to evict a particularly slippery whelk from the bottom a jar he might even have rubbed them together.

    “I have read one of those awful books by that dreadful Christie woman, and I expect you want me to tell you who else was in the house at the time of… the incident.” She announced and without pausing for any form of assent.

    “I only know the Sisters by their novitiate names and very little of their backgrounds, nor do most of them now, poor dears”. “You will get nothing useful out of Sister Christina, completely gaga, we have to tempt her off the top of the wardrobe with chocolate biscuits every morning. Ex-magician’s assistant, named after Saint Christina the Astounding, both of which might explain the furniture antics.”

    “The only two that are still playing with a full deck are: Sister Margaret Immaculate, former Bunny-girl, so the choice of name isn’t really fooling anybody and Sister Joanne. She might be more useful…, degree in Ancient and Modern languages, novelist, Sunday Times bestseller in fact; she only came to us after she saw the face of Mother Theresa in a Walnut Whip; not much of a challenge in my opinion, but it takes all sorts.”

    …Never ever to be continued…

  22. Ed DesCamp says:

    I think snowy is on to something potentially interesting. I am still cleaning up the coffee I blew all over the kitchen upon reading the excerpt. Thanks for that!
    @ Helen – if you’re still stymied by Amazon UK, I can place an order for you from here and will send it on upon arrival.

  23. Ed DesCamp says:

    Chris – hope you had a good Monday. Re having A & J in isolation while the team works under their direction, sounds like White Corridor…not a bad thing, as it still allows London to be featured, and could be fun. Cheers.

  24. Nick says:

    Tangential to the topic, I look upon the picture at the top and despair – why cannot publishers adhere to one format? Such a jumble of styles. I love the current design, but even that was randomly abandoned for two intervening volumes. It so upsets my OCD…

  25. Helen Martin says:

    Ed DesCamp, thank you for the offer but I’ll just keep checking or see if I can contact Waterstones or whatsit, the bookstore that has a branch in Oxford – ooh, that would be fun, to actually get a shipment from them! No, it’ll work out somehow. I could even give them our mailbox in Wash. state and we could pick it up once the border opens.

  26. Kimberly says:

    It felt as if your opening sentence of this blog answered your own question: “Today I fell back with relief into the fictional world….” Bryant & May are believable and beloved, partially because we also fall with relief into their fictional world — where a Great Sickness of some sort might be acceptable, only you need not call it Coronavirus or COVID-19, of which we have PLENTY in our nonfiction world.

  27. Ian Luck says:

    I was re-watching my DVD’s of Michael Palin and the late, great Terry Jones’ ‘Ripping Yarns’, and, in ‘The Curse Of The Claw’, was reminded of two fictional illnesses, that, when I worked in the Tax Office, in 1988, (don’t judge me – it was an awful job), that I was tempted to put on a sick form – the people there were so unimaginative they’d never have checked it – ‘Dinge and Blackleg’. Mind you, I could have been brutally honest, and entered, after ‘Reason For Absence’, ‘I hate my job.’

Comments are closed.