I Spy The Next Bryant & May


One of the purposes of the Bryant & May series is to try out different sub-genres within the overall embracing genre of crime fiction. I’ve already worked my way through many of them – I’ll stop when I’ve done them all – but one which has until now eluded me is the spy story. I never appreciated much beyond ‘The Third Man’ until I read Ben McIntyre’s books and learned about the sacrifices demanded by loyalty, which gave me the springboard for the next B&M novel.

Within the spy tale itself are other sub-genres. There’s a huge difference between Ian Fleming’s books, for example, and John Le Carré’s. It doesn’t help that cheesy 007 films encouraged us to overlook the original novels, which are more parochial and snobbish, although surprisingly fun to read. The modern version of the early spy novels is, I suppose, Mick Herron’s enjoyable Slow Horses novels, which in some ways feel like a riff on my own, although Mr Herron takes his in a different direction.

If the spy story is back, its real life dramas are courtesy of Russia’s duplicitous incursions into western politics. But how much do we want our fiction to reflect news headlines? In the real world right now elections are being fixed, protestors are being misled by social media, leaders are blindly lying, mothers are refusing to believe in science and sickness is ravaging the planet. In the land of Bryant & May, though, killers are being tracked down through abstruse means and eccentrics win the day.

How much should a novel reflect the world? Does it have to be pertinent? Wodehouse continues to sell and is as pertinent as wallpaper.

I’ve written a few zeitgeist novels in my time and have found that with the possible exception of Jonathan Coe’s ‘What A Carve Up!’ it is not always a good idea to be pertinent. It can be shelf-life destroying and limiting.

In literary fiction the real world is often accessed to provide the fiction. Colum McCann’s startling, elliptical ‘Apeirogon’ may be written in an experimental, fanciful, fragmented style but it is based on a true story of real people caught in Middle East conflict. Perhaps poetry takes something from the pain of reality. In Lithuania and Budapest the headquarters of the secret police have been transformed by art, heightened and made less insufferable.

Crime novels now often use real events, real and fictional characters merged together – something that was never attempted before because there was, rightly, a queasiness about blurring the lines. Now that queasiness seems has vanished. The danger lies in losing the facts.

If I loaded my slightly magical realist approach with real crime characters I would risk creating an unworkable hybrid. I used the King’s Cross fire, something that has personal resonance for me, in ‘Bryant & May Off The Rails’, and made the fantastical ‘Soho Black’ semi-autobiographical, but that’s as far as I would go.

Although the spies of the present are very different from those of the Cold War, they share the same origin. The nascent CIA picked its employees from postwar British saboteur units. Espionage has become more insidious. Its genius now lies in removing the distinction between a real and/or imagined crime, and in taking on strange new forms.

An example; Yesterday I read a rave 5* Amazon review for a terrible, terrible book, and out of passing interest ran a quick check on its authorial provenance. What I found were hundreds of 5* reviews by the same person for equally dire books, so I crosschecked him on other social platforms and got a hired gun, someone who has been paid to cross the line from social influencer into undercover persuader. This, I would argue, now falls under the cover of spying.

Which brings me to ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’. Arthur Bryant & John May will be looking into a case involving spies, deception, government cover-ups and inevitably, a murder. My take will of course be individual enough to annoy spy story purists, an acting exercise I usually only get to perform with ranting science fiction aficionados.

It means a change of shape for the Bryant & May storyline because murder mysteries can ramble more, given that they’re following an established template. So of course I’m writing the first rambling spy story with sidelights on eccentric London history. I’m reaching the end of the third draft with two tidy-ups to go. The next thing to do will be to think of an image for the cover.

The book features an elderly Mata Hari type (see top for that somewhat hefty spy) but it’ll be fairly old school – no social influencing industrial spies or code-hacking online geeks, but plenty of figures lurking in shadows.


81 comments on “I Spy The Next Bryant & May”

  1. Jan says:

    C u tomorrow Mr F My last day working up in Somerset today!


    I hope u r doing alright Jan

  2. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Quince chutney is best. I once moved a tree to save the quinces!

  3. Derek J Lewis says:

    I can’t totally agree with the “huge difference between Ian Flemings books and John LeCarre’s” maybe his earlier stuff was a bit grittier but he’s faded badly.
    This is especially true with ‘The Night Manager’ which is a shameless, fairly blatant rip-off of the Fleming formula. The spy infiltrates super rich baddies organisation, lives the luxurious life in lots of chic places, sleeps with the baddies main squeeze and foils and rather far-fetched plot. The snobbery with violence is still there but sanitised with a bit of liberal social comment

  4. Brooke says:

    Mr. Fowler, I see you also lost control when you posted your complaint on Twitter. Poor you…

  5. Martin Tolley says:

    In Escofier’s “Ma Cuisine” he writes “Ratafias or household liqueurs were once popular, but are no longer fashionable, which is very regrettable.”
    His recipe for wild cherry ratafia needs 3lb wild cherries, 2lb of sugar and 9 – 10 pints of colourless brandy. Not sure where to get colourless….

  6. Paul C says:

    A laudatory mention for Mr F today on the Interestingliterature.com website :

    The World in Winter, a novel, now sadly out of print, by a forgotten author who I was switched onto by Christopher Fowler in his brilliant and revelatory The Book of Forgotten Authors

    Worth a look………..

  7. Dawn Andrews says:

    At least any home brews fermented on this site won’t be too inflammatory. By the way Jan, watch out driving that stuff around too fast, a friend of mine once had to redecorate her basement when her apple wine exploded. Twitter has got too big for its beak. Too many white cats being stroked in a sinister fashion. (to return to a vaguely spying theme.)

  8. David Ronaldson says:

    Most spies are very sensible, trustworthy Civil Servants. I would share some interesting stories, but if I did, I’d have to lock myself in an unfeasibly small suitcase.

  9. snowy says:

    “The existence of the web specifically social media has radically changed things.”

    It’s not quite the earth-shaking change that people would have you think, [most of the people that you will hear peddling that line usually make their money from selling advertising on the web].

    There are two inter-related effects operating together, cost of access and ease of access.

    You will know all these touch-points, so this is just a recap.

    At the start of recorded history the only people that could exert mass influence were Emperors, “I declare a holiday! Everybody will receive bread and be treated to a circus. Now like me or I will nail you all to bits of wood!” [The message would be carried by thousands of runners throughout the empire].

    Then came the empires of religion, “I am a man in a frock, and I’ve got a special hat, look at my hat! That thing you are doing with you hand, it’s an act of sin. Stop it now – it will make your hands grow hair! But kissing my ring is still OK. [Scribes would laboriously produce thousands of copies of the message by hand, to be carried to priests that would instruct the faithful].

    Now comes the first really ‘disruptive technology’… the printing press!

    No need for a very expensive army of scribes, anyone with cash to burn and a point of view can now produce a broadside or pamphlet and give it away. If the message is composed with sufficient skill it will be passed from hand to hand, from town to town, be reprinted and redistributed. [People think things ‘going viral’ is entirely a 20C phenomena, they are wrong. The system is imperfect, it depends on: a sufficient availability of people that can read and is not invulnerable to the message being corrupted/changed in replication].

    [The first surviving paid for advertisement in English will probably be found in a ‘Broadside Ballad’, no public hanging worth the name went without one. They served as promotional flyers, trailers, info-tainment, a caution to would-be wrongdoers and as a special souvenir of a grand day out. The Bodleian has a collection, it’s searchable online].

    But it would take three more things to happen for manipulation, to become so commonplace that it just becomes so completely ubiquitous that everybody suddenly stopped paying any attention to it, like a constant background hum. Cheap power, [this makes the production of paper, ink and printing affordable by more people], cheap transport, [economies of scale come in here] and mass literacy.

    Once the cost of advertising drops into fractions of a penny, it grows at an exponential rate, [not just __/ but __| ], but this brings with it two problem. Once everybody can afford to advertise, everybody does, then to keep up with their rivals everybody has to; it becomes an absolute ‘arms race’. And since everybody advertises the impact of an advert is completely diluted because it is only one of many competing adverts for products that are only marginally different from each other. It quite quickly reaches saturation point and tips into the ‘law of diminishing returns’, spending more and more where each incremental increase in spend produces less and less effect.

    The arrival of the web is not a ‘paradigm shift’ it is just an extension of existing means, it has lowered the cost of participation, but because it has also increased the total number of adverts/voices the effects of each are concomitantly diminished.

    “I just can’t follow how the actions of this social influencer turned literary critic can be defined as spying.”


    [It just became circular and restated points already covered.]


    Let’s try establishing a definition of Industrial Espionage by stating what it sets out to achieve.

    The final and only goal of all ‘Industrial Espionage’ is to take income from a rival supplier of goods or services.

    That is it, simple, [so simple that it makes detection easy, the only question that ever needs to be answered is ‘who benefits?’]

    Industrial espionage has been going on for centuries, from the Guilds of craftsmen in Egypt through the Medieval period right up to Modern drug cartels. [Perhaps the best documented examples will be found in the period 1850-1950, every technique you have ever seen in films or read in books has been tried in one form or another, with the possible exception of electrocuting an elephant in from of a paying audience, a rivalry between the Edison and Westinghouse companies that got a bit out of hand.]

    So if we work back from the effect to the cause; then all attempts to divert money from ‘Supplier A’ to ‘Supplier B’ by covert means falls within the strict definition.

    [Paying somebody in a low-wage economy to post fake reviews to boost your sales, is just trying divert money away from your rivals].

    “That potentially use of social media could undermine the stability of a nation. That’s just crazy.”

    That would be to bundle together the power of the ‘medium’ with the power of the ‘message’. Social media has by the nature of being an open platform a tendency to level out, action provokes re-action, most people become quickly bored and drift off to a new distraction. It can be used as a single tool as part of a wider campaign to give support to more credible looking sources.

    It is not entirely powerless, protests can be successfully launched and result in thousands of people appearing on the streets, but because it happens in plain view it will not lead to the overthrowing of a state just by itself, the forces of state control can read Twitter just like everybody else. And a protest raised in a hurry tends to burn out as fast as it ignited.

    Social media in and of itself is very unlikely to cause a state to collapse, but it could be the final spark that sets in motion a chain of destructive events, but it would need a lot of existing ‘fuel’ in the form of discontent to precipitate a complete collapse.

    “Maybe we could all do with tinfoil hats in this strange and brave new world.”

    Merely knowing people are constantly trying to manipulate you, is it’s own defence. – some examples follow:

    Overt message: “BUY THE THROBOMATIC 6000 – IT’S A METAL BOX – ON WHEELS“.

    Implied message: “If you buy this car, you will get all ‘the sex'”.

    Motive: We’ve got hundreds of these rusting in a field in Essex and have to sell them.


    Overt message: “Add lustre to your lips with our unique mixture of secret ingredients, claims just vague enough to avoid legal action and because the person telling you this is wearing a white coat“.

    Implied message: “You look like a pig in a wig, buy this, smear it around your cake hole and then you won’t die alone and have your face eaten off by your cat”.

    Motive: We decided for some reason to boil the grease out of 4 tons of scrap cow’s feet from the abattoir and dye it red, it’s started to get a bit ‘niffy’, so buy it before Environmental Health close us down”.

  10. Jan says:

    Snowy – and your point is?

  11. Dawn Andrews says:

    Murder must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers is an interesting read on the subject of manipulating the masses, the last line ‘advertise or go under’ is still chilling, and the fact that the big advertising campaign the whimsical Lord spearheads is for the health giving properties of cigarettes. Murder!

  12. snowy says:

    Jan, that question that has been puzzling me since ever since I learned to walk, [I still haven’t found the answer, but continue to live in hope that one day somebody will tell me].

  13. Brian Evans says:

    Dawn, you prob know this but D Sayers worked in advertising. She came up with the slogan “Guinness is Good For You.” Not a slogan you would think was exactly clever, but it was hugely successful.

  14. Dawn Andrews says:

    Brian, knew about her working in advertising but didn’t know about her coming up with that slogan, there was a parrot or macaw on the original advertising poster I think? I seem to remember seeing it, probably at the V and A! Genius slogan.

  15. Brian Evans says:

    Dawn, you’re right, but sadly I’m old enough to remember it in the streets, and not in a museum. Oo-er!

  16. Jan says:

    Someone might very well do that @ some stage Snowy.

    I never knew Dorothy Sayers worked in advertising (mind I know practically nowt) and that’s a proper surprise that that “Guiness is good for you” is one of her little homilies. Are they all at the advertising game then these creatives? Going to work on eggs, enjoying naughty but nice cream cakes and letting us know that in space no one can hear you scream. That’ll cover Weldon, Rushdie and our host. Blimey is it like an apprenticeship for writing books then doing the advertising slogans?

    So do you reckon Shakespeare kicked off advertising them fancy gaiters that Elizabethan blokes wore with tights? ” Wear these cross gaiters and no one will ever know about your varicose veins? ” Or nearbears ” Much safer than well water to drink and it’s very very tasty”
    Before he got that job on the South Bank I reckon he was knocking out adverts for the sides of sedan chairs ….

    Here was it Guiness or Mackeson that featured the macaw/parrot?

  17. Helen Martin says:

    I enjoyed Murder Must Advertise and still mutter the difference between “made from” and “made with” when looking at ingredients lists.
    They keep saying the Russians are trying to tamper with voting through messages on line. Why would you expect to find truth on a Facebook post or a Twitter tweet unless the truth was self explanatory (“I did this today…” ‘I saw this on my way home on Highway 1 at 6pm yesterday” where it can be fact checked) or could at least be tracked to a source (“I read in an article by X in the on-line blog/site”). There are some government departments you actually do trust not to lie (Elections Canada – or whatever your nation is, the Internal Revenue Service or whatever your income tax people are called). They may do all sorts of things to you – especially the tax people- but they don’t lie. Anything in the hands of a politician is suspect. This is why the tax people don’t lie but the Minister of Finance may very well do so. Anything in the hands of scientists should be safe but we have heard of pressure put on scientific spokespeople to “shade the truth” or downplay things so we even have to watch them carefully now.
    A prime example is the effort by the White House to downplay the condition of Mr. Trump while he is in hospital. When Boris was in hospital there was concern expressed but nothing went pear shaped. You can expect the American Stock Market to go bananas on Monday. The problem is that the US President is also the head of state as well as the head of government. If the Queen takes ill the concern expressed would be that of family members for an elderly family member, but there would be no panic because government would continue without skipping a beat. Should Boris have succumbed government would also continue because it is just a matter of party politics and the party would deal with it. In the US if the POTUS succumbs there is a formula for change but it is ungainly and requires a list of people to make decisions. In the meantime things slow down and there is a scramble to keep everyone calm while the list of people are consulted. It is vital to keep everyone calm while government is restored. We have already heard reporters analyzing the statements doctors are making to see what is not being said or being played down.
    these are thoughts I’ve had but I’m not sure that I actually made any point.

  18. Dawn Andrews says:

    You have Helen, I was wondering why there was so much blind panic about the President being ill. Politicians, how can you trust people who are trained to lie in as many words as possible and keep on lying right up to the point when they have no alternative but to tell a sanitised version of truth? Nixon’s address to the nation after watergate is a classic example. Like Arthur Bryant I’m still kicking myself for voting for Tony Blair!

  19. Ed DesCamp says:

    Helen, your remarks concerning our succession plan is spot on. While, under “normal” circumstances, the VP would take over if POTUS becomes incapacitated, he hasn’t yet, and the last 40 months would seem to indicate the such a move is long overdue. Might I also add, “HELP!”?

  20. Dawn Andrews says:

    Got interested and looked up the posters Jan, it was a toucan that Guinness used, cleverly, in their campaign. They were still around in the Sixties Brian so being no chicken myself I could have also seen them on the highstreet or in a train station. As you say, oh er! Tempis fugit.

  21. Jan says:

    I can remember (Or have convinced myself I can remember) watching a tv advert with some bloke and that birdie!

  22. Ian Luck says:

    The other character seen in ‘Guinness’ adverts, was a bloke nonchalently sauntering about with a girder over his shoulder, or doing everyday tasks like lifting up an elephant, or a steamroller.

  23. Dawn Andrews says:

    Guinness have a talent for innovative ads, anyone who needs perking up today, and I certainly do, might look up ‘Guinness ad, anticipation’ on YouTube to see Joe McKinney dance. Sheer genius, it is.

  24. Paul C says:

    I once watched a barman pour half a pint of Guinness into a pint glass then a half pint of lemonade on top. The lemonade remained floating separately on top of the Guinness. Do try this at home………..

  25. Helen Martin says:

    I have just finished a survey that will be done around the world on people’s attitudes to various standards and sources. You may have it cross your computer, etc. How far left do you think you are? Is it essential/non-conducive to democracy for the army to take over from an incompetent government? Government should never/always assist the unemployed. Not working leads to laziness true/false. How much do you trust Facebook? Journalists? Government? Took me 3/4 hour.

  26. snowy says:

    Somewhere deep in the recesses of my 👿 mind; there is a variation of the Guinness shandy in a pub trick called a Trojan Horse.

    [Pint glass, half pint of Guinness, then slowly and carefully cover with Coke, slice of lemon; pass to victim friend and wait].

  27. Helen Martin says:

    I know the specific gravity of the Guinness is greater than that of the lemonade. I remember about the Mentos and coca cola (?) – an effusion. If it were anyone but you, Snowy, I would try it but it isn’t on tap anywhere around here and who knows whether the tinned variety (with or without the widget) would work so I’m not about to drive miles away to find a licensed premise with Guinness. What would happen?

  28. snowy says:

    I will confess it is not a concoction that I have ever sampled, because there are many Irish stouts much nicer than Guinness.

    And even Guinness doesn’t benefit [much] from being diluted with fizzy sugar water flavoured with rust-remover, [Phosphoric Acid, your indoor expert has probably come across Jenolite or similar.]

  29. Dawn Andrews says:

    Trust Facebook, journalists, governments? Is it red nose day already?

  30. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you for that bit of research, Snowy. Phosphorus, just your handy dandy do it all. It will take off rust, create fertilizer and flavour your fizzy drink. Another reason to lay off the fizzy sodas. It’s surprising the number of brands we don’t know over here. Jeyes liquid (nope), Jenolite (nope), Jaffa cakes (nope) fairy liquid of any brand (nope and I like the word better than ours – dish soap).

  31. snowy says:

    There is a rather nice ‘biography’ of Phosphorus by John Emsley, hard to find and expensive when you do.

    But since this the book blog of with a focus on Crime fiction, [and absolutely nothing to do with the vegetable based condiment that dare not speak it’s name], a much more on-theme book by the same author is: ‘The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison’.

    “A fascinating anecdotal history of killing by five elements–mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead and thalium…. With something of interest on almost every page, it combines the satisfactions of a detective story, intriguing snippets of history, popular science, unsolved mysteries and murder. A powerful brew.” –P. D. James, Sunday Telegraph”

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