Christopher Fowler – Bryant & May Investigate: The Victoria Vanishes


This was filed under ‘Teen Reads’ and I’d not want to discourage anyone under thirty from reading it. However, there’s a lot in Fowler’s books that would be lost on them. What teenager would appreciate references to milk stout, Fry’s Five Fruits chocolate or old films starring Diana Dors or Googie Withers? Just at a very basic level, who among them would get the joke of detectives called ‘Bryant and May’? And both the protagonists are getting on a bit, although one’s tech-savvy and one resolutely isn’t. The point of these books is that one of the detectives, Arthur Bryant, wouldn’t be drastically out of place in an Edgar Wallace, and the mysteries the Peculiar Crimes Unit investigate are the sort of thing other writers set in a Dickensian London-as-we-want-it-to-have-been, but the gothic and grand guignol is all happening in more or less present-day London. (Mostly: one is a flashback to 1973 and the first goes to World War II to sketch in the start of the Unit). This book is the sixth of ten (so far) and Fowler had hit his stride. It does have references back to earlier books but not so many as to make this a bad start. Just pay attention and wait for Chapter Eight, when the team are introduced to a new member (one who has already alienated them in an earlier book) for the benefit of new readers..

Along the way, we get a lot of stuff about why pubs are important. A lot of stuff. The case hinges on obscure historical and technical details so the only way to preserve the mystery is to bury the ones that matter in among a lot of others that are less significant or more memorable. Thus people tend to ramble on about pet subjects, realistically, and a less-attentive reader might skip bits. There’s a flurry of arcana, including half-remembered news items to ground the bits of the plot that seem absurd in reality. Sometimes this has someone telling someone else who might normally be expected to already know.

This is a book about London and loss. Even the PCU is facing closure as the book begins. The pathologist has himself died and Bryant can’t remember what he did with the urn. There was a great old-fashioned mystery writer, Edmund Crispin, who did a book called The Moving Toyshop in which his donnish sleuth, Gervase Fen, had to deal with a crime-scene that vanished. There’s more than a hint of that here – knowingly – but the problem is also that Bryant’s worried that he may actually be able to lose entire pubs. Indeed, with so many closing now the sense of London as a city with a form of memory-loss is lurking in this book too. Fowler loves this city and many of the earlier books in this series, and his Roofworld, make London almost the most important character (here’s what he has to say about exploring the metropolis).

If you’ve read his first two volumes of memoirs, Paperboy and Film Freak (available in the main Leytonstone library) you’ll see how much of this is observation, and how much else he’d done before becoming a full-time novelist. There’s a murder in Chapter One but after that the investigation starts in Chapter Nine. As you might expect from the above, the journey is more important as the destination. In tone, these are close cousins to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (and I don’t care what anyone says, the original TV version is the real thing and all adaptations are substitutes) or Ben Aaronovitch’s fantasy crime novels starting with Rivers of London. The key difference is that however much Fowler evokes that atmosphere he’s keeping the solution and detection firmly rational.

By Tat Wood