Wednesday, March 5, 2014

2,227: Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart by Christopher Fowler

Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart is the eleventh outing for one of the oddest detective duos in literature.  Since the last instalment, Bryant and May and the Invisible Code, Arthur Bryant and John May, together with the other members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, have been moved from the Met to the City of London Police, a force more accustomed to solving financial crime.  A fresh start?

Or maybe not, as their new, PR-savvy boss, Orion Banks sees the PCU as a potentially embarrassing anachronism and OAP detectives Bryant and May as being ripe for retirement.  On top of this, the first crime they begin to investigate is definitely not the kind of thing Orion thinks proper.

Two teenagers have, apparently, seen a dead man rising from a grave in a London graveyard, something which doesn’t look much like a real crime, even when one of the teenagers is killed in a hit and run accident a few days later.  Nevertheless, the interest of the PCU has been aroused and Bryant’s curiosity is even more piqued when it transpires that the dead youth’s shirt has been swapped between the moment he was last seen alive and the moment his body is discovered.
Frustratingly for Bryant, he is banned from investigating this situation and is, instead tasked with finding out who has stolen the ravens from the Tower of London, something which leads him to cross paths again with Mr Merry, a kind of Welsh Aleister Crowley.

Of course, the two crimes are destined to connect with each other and our two detectives end up getting involved with some 21st Century bodysnatchers, a dodgy waste disposal company and trying to figure out what the secret of Bleeding Heart Yard has to do with things, whilst Bryant is forced to confront his fear of being buried alive.

For various reasons, I’ve been picking up the Bryant and May books piecemeal and in no particular order, which is a shame as they do benefit from being read in order.  I have promised myself to go back and read (or, in some cases, reread) them from the beginning as I have become a little addicted to them, with this new episode being the best I’ve read so far.

The interplay between the members of the PCU is entertaining and often amusing and there is a real life to the characters, centring on Bryant and May themselves whose different but complementary personalities have created a distinctive and engaging partnership.  They are, in essence, old-fashioned detectives who would fit perfectly into a Golden Age novel but who are forced to deal with the modern world, with varying degrees of success, as Bryant’s tendency to destroy technology demonstrates.

On top of this, Christopher Fowler enriches the stories by steeping them in the arcana of London’s thousand year history.  The books almost scream London and I have rarely read books that have such a strong sense of place and of belonging.

All this only goes so far though and Fowler’s master trick is to underpin the eccentricity, the arcana and the whiff of the occult that suffuses the Bryant and May books with a solid police procedural and a proper investigation.  This grounds the novels and stops the other elements from turning them into implausible fantasy tales.

Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart is an excellent detective novel.  It is, like the detectives themselves quirky but solid.  Superior stuff.

I would like to thank Random House (UK) for allowing me to read this via Netgalley.