Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Jeanne Reviews: Bryant and May: Wild Chamber (A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery) by Christopher Fowler

While I count myself a fan of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May books, it’s always a bit difficult to decide how to describe them to other people.  The premise is that there is a Peculiar Crimes Unit in London which exists to investigate crimes which may have something – well, peculiar about them.  The man presumably in charge of the unit is the hapless Raymond Land who sits in his office issuing directives that are at best ignored and more often widely mocked.  The real brains of the operation belong to Arthur Bryant and John May, two relics who began their careers during World War II. They’re aided and abetted by a motley crew of officers who share a high regard for solving cases, even if the methods are unorthodox, and a low regard for regimentation.

In Wild Chamber, a woman is found strangled in one of London’s many small gardens.  This one happens to be a locked garden, one to which few people should have access.  Before that crime can be solved, another woman is found under similar circumstances.  If the Peculiar Crimes Unit can’t solve this one soon, London’s gardens may be locked to the public and the PCU out of business.

As per usual for a PCU book, the investigators follow different paths to arrive at the truth. Bryant, who is at heart a historian, fills in the whole history of parks in London—not just locations, but the place they have in the British psyche.  May is the more pragmatic, running down leads about ex-husbands or possible serial killers, and eschewing Bryant’s visits to psychics, tea readers, and experts in ancient religions. Yet somehow or other, both their investigations always converge and yield the same conclusion.

And have I mentioned the books are extremely funny? Not in a slapstick sort of way, but clever, with lines that beg to be read aloud and/or repeated to others.  Such bon mots as, “Reality is for those who lack imagination,” for example, or “Thoughts, plural, that’s a start” delight me as do the quick cultural references (pop and otherwise) and bits of social commentary. 

Should I ever visit London, I think I would read this series in preparation.  Each book takes a particular aspect of the city—the parks, the Underground, the churchyards—and delves deep into the history and lore. For example, St. Pancras Church wouldn’t have been high on my list of places to visit in London, but after finding out that it was in the adjacent cemetery that Mary Wollstonecraft met with Percy Shelley, I would really like to go take a peek.

I don’t consider these to be cozies, even if the gore factor is low; they aren’t police procedurals because these officers don’t follow procedure; they aren’t straight-forward mysteries, because there are cultural/supernatural overtones, and yet they aren’t supernatural mysteries. I don’t know what they are.  I just know I like them a lot.

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