Full Dark House, by Christopher Fowler
Book One in the Bryant and May series.
Published by Bantam, 2003.
ISBN: 978 0 553 81552 8
Review by Mark Yon
It takes a lot of skill, if not a lot of nerve, for an author to set up a book seemingly about the exploits of a crime detective duo and apparently kill one of them off on the first page.
But that’s what happens here. In present day London, an incendiary device is set off in the office of London Metropolitan Police’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, which not only destroys their police files but kills Arthur Bryant, one half of a detective double, Bryant and May.
The surviving detective John May is now on the hunt for a cop killer. Whilst investigating, May becomes convinced that the killer is connected to the two’s first case together, one that began in London’s Blitz of the 1940’s.
Much of the book then goes back to that time to give details of the case: a strange one, involving a footless dancer’s body, a death by globe and a faceless man running around a theatre in a Blitz-damaged London, before May can deduce any connection between the past and the present.
Though I’ve seen this series around for a while now (and as I type we’re about to get Book 10 in the series) I must admit that, frankly, it’s passed me by.
Really, I should have known better. It’s a witty, clever little book, written with panache and humour, whilst using Christopher’s horror origins to throw in the odd little shock as we veer slightly into Twilight Zone or X-Files territory. The characters are great (although a little rude in places, so they might shock your typical crime fan) and the setting, both in the past and the present, wholly immersive. The suspects all appear as identifiable as in a game of Cluedo or an Agatha Christie novel, and it’s great fun trying to work out whodunnit. The details of their first case together for the Peculiar Crimes Squad, set in 1940’s Blitz-hit London are wonderfully well written. As richly detailed as Connie Willis’s recent Blackout/All Clear, there’s a palpable sense of being in the city whilst there’s rationing and a war on. With none of the technical gubbins of today’s detectives, Bryant and May have to use good, old-fashioned deduction to make their conclusions work. A knowledge of Ancient Greek mythology is quite useful here. That, and a little understanding of the occult that wouldn’t go amiss from a pulp-fiction 1930’s tale.
The overall feeling at the end of this one is that it is a combination of a traditional British crime thriller with a touch of the Phantom of the Opera about it. As the deaths continue at the London theatre, the cause seems almost supernatural. Christopher, showing his Horror origins, can’t resist some quite gory deaths along the way.
I’m sure some readers will be struck by how such tales have recently struck a popular chord. Treading similar ground (or is that a policeman’s beat?) to Ben Aaronovitch’s recent Rivers of London/Peter Grant novels, I must say that as much as I enjoyed Ben’s first novel, I enjoyed this one much, much more. Full Dark House is a more subtle tale, cleverer in its plot twists, sexier and more stylish, although less genre related, perhaps.
Full Dark House is not a book that tries to repeatedly show the reader explicitly how clever it is: it just is, and it is up to the reader to find the clues out. As ‘whodunnits’ go, this is a classy effort. The little touches, as literary Easter Eggs, kept me amused throughout: Bryant and May are the brand name for a British box of matches, for example.
For people wanting to read something in my opinion as good, if not better (and written nearly a decade before) than Ben’s books, this comes very much recommended. Why didn’t readers (including me) notice this one before? This would make a wonderful BBC Television series.
I struggled to put this one down. Guess that means I’m a newly converted fan and can’t wait to read more.
Nine more to go and find. Bring on the next!
Mark Yon, July 2012.