What Are The Bryant & May Books Really About?
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.
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.