Author: Christopher Fowler
Publisher: Bantam Books (Random House imprint)
The most blurbing of blurb:
“Our story begins at the end of an investigation, as the members of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit race to catch a killer near London Bridge Station in the rain, not realising that they’re about to cause a bizarre accident just yards away from the crime scene. And it will have repercussions for them all…
One year later, in an exclusive London crescent, a woman walks her dog – but she’s being watched. When she’s found dead, the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in to investigate. Why? Because the method of death is odd, the gardens are locked, the killer had no way in – or out – and the dog has disappeared.
So a typical case for Bryant & May. But the hows and whys of the murder are not the only mysteries surrounding the dead woman – there’s a missing husband and a lost nanny to puzzle over too. And it seems very like that the killer is preparing to strike again.
As Arthur Bryant delves in to the history of London’s ‘wild chambers’ – its extraordinary parks and gardens, John May and the rest of the team seem to have caused a national scandal. If no-one is safe then all of London’s open spaces must be closed…
With the PCU placed under house arrest, only Arthur Bryant remains at liberty – but can a hallucinating old codger catch the criminal and save the unit before it’s too late?”
Wild Chamber is the 14th in the Bryant and May series of books. How many?, I hear you cry, or is that the neighbours arguing again? This may be of some surprise to many of you, but Christopher Fowler is one of UK literature’s best kept secrets. I don’t want to harp on about how he is the best selling author you have never heard of, but the fact remains that he is. I first discovered him within the pages of the long defunct and brilliant Fear magazine. They ran an interview with him (which I still have but cannot lay my hands on right now), about his upcoming debut novel Roofworld (pub 1988). The idea of a secret civilisation gadding about upon the rooftops of London was too intriguing to resist, so I bought it, bloody loved it, and a life-long Fan of Fowler was begat. That was 30 years ago: 46 books/short story collections/2 memoirs/1 graphic novel later and people still say “who?” when you mention his name. Fucking atrocity, imo.
Anyway, let’s get to the current book. Bryant And May first appeared waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back in Chris’s 2nd novel, Rune. They continued to pop up in his books when required (Soho Black springs to mind), but it wasn’t until Full Dark House that the two elderly detectives fell into their own series and became the detectives that we now know and, if you’ve any sense at all, love (and if you haven’t any sense, nip out, get some – there’s a sale online – then come back). John May and Arthur Bryant are two elderly detectives (their age is a bit hazy; the books are actually the memoirs of Arthur, and as such, the facts are a slightly moveable feast), who work for London’s Peculiar Crime Unit (PCU) – a specialist unit working within London’s Metropolitan Police Service, but also have some independence from it: “…a division founded during the Second World War to investigate cases that could cause national scandal or public unrest”. The unit is constantly under the threat of being closed down by bureaucrats in the Home Office, but, so far, they always scrape by by the skin of their dentures.
In Wild Chamber, the two detectives and the rest of the PCU, investigate a series of murders that are committed within London’s parks, the acts of which threatens to close them down. The Home Office Liaison Officer and long-time adversary of the PCU, the odious Leslie Faraday, sees this as an opportunity to finally shut down the PCU once and for all; blaming the them for the park’s closures and setting the public against them. Will it work? Will the PCU finally be closed down for good? Pish, you’ll have to read the book to find that out for yourselves.
The Bryant and May books are truly a love letter to London. In all of the books (with the possible exception, off of the top of my head, of White Corridor), the city of London is as much a character as the members of the PCU themselves. Chris always imbibes these books with the rich, millenia old history of London, intricately linking his plots to it. Whether it is the ancient, forgotten rivers, the Thames itself, its pubs, theatres, ancient societies, hidden people, or highwaymen; they are all beautifully woven into the crimes that Arthur and John investigate over the course of the series. In this book, it is London’s parks and green spaces that are brought to the forefront, with Chris weaving social comment and their history throughout the narrative. To aid the PCU in their hunt for the perpetrators of the crimes, Chris has created a rich set of peripheral characters that Arthur in particular often calls upon, much to the chagrin of the rest of the PCU: There’s the wonderful and, um, quirky, white witch Maggie Armitage, and heavy metal loving English Professor Raymond Kirkpatrick to name two, both possessing arcane and highly specialist knowledge that in a very roundabout way often help the PCU to, eventually, solve their crimes. Due to complications with Arthur’s recovery from illness (see the previous two books), we even have guest appearances from Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys and the Queen herself. Don’t worry, it isn’t quite as weird as it sounds. Ok, it is as weird as it sounds, but once you become familiar with Arthur Bryant, it really isn’t! Arthur himself is a wonderful, wonderful character; erudite, complicated, prone to calamity and destroying anything technological that he comes into contact with (seriously, don’t let him near anyone with a pacemaker). His long term, and long suffering, partner is the sophisticated, handsome, charming and techno-safe, John May. Meeting up way back in the 1940’s, they have been pretty much inseparable ever since, keeping London safe without the public ever really being aware of it.
The rest of the PCU are just as wonderful; these books truly are an ensemble piece. We have series regulars Janice Longbright, Raymond Land, Colin Bimsley, Meera Mangeshkar, Jack Renfield, Dan Banbury and Giles Kershaw, all of whom over the course of the books have their time in the limelight and are invaluable to the Unit’s successes (and rare failures).
I’m finding it hard to keep this review to just this book and to not have it become an appreciation of all things Christopher Fowler. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; he is a truly outstanding author with a rich back catalogue that you really should go back and read (they are all available as eBooks now), but maybe I’ll reserve that for a future blog post.
As for Wild Chamber, I strongly recommend, no, I insist that you read it. If you have never read a B&M book before then this is a most excellent start. Although these books are obviously a series there is no real requirement to read them all in order (with the exception of ‘On The Loose’ and ‘Off The Rails’, which should), but as with all series, in my opinion, you get a better experience from doing so. Some of his characters from his earlier works – DI Ian Hargreaves and DS Gladys Longbright, from Roofworld and other earlier books, for instance – have strong links to the current characters and the unit, but you wouldn’t know that unless you have been with Chris for a while. Being a long term reader of Chris’s works really is quite rewarding as he often chucks in little throwbacks to earlier, unrelated, novels. The Leicester Square Vampire was a longstanding case until the B&M series finally put it to rest.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and discover the world and works of Christopher Fowler. As for the Bryant and May books, they are dramatic, clever, educational, wonderfully plotted, very funny and exquisite works of fiction. What more could you want?
5/5 (RidicuRating(™) 1000/5 for the series so far)