Love and Hate with Bryant and May

IMG_2244Are you familiar with the Bryant and May series of books by Christopher Fowler? I admit that I have come very late to the series which has been running since the publication in 2004 of ‘Full Dark House’ and I admit too that, five novels in, I find myself in something of a love/hate relationship with the books.

Many of the cover quotes tell us that these are ‘page turners’ and this is true. Through book 4 (‘Ten Second Staircase’) and 5 (‘White Corridor’) I have found myself rapidly flicking and skimming the opening chapters, increasingly infuriated by the numerous references to the previous instalments and what I can only describe as tiresomely smug rolling out of historical trivia the author bets we don’t know. And yet, I find myself inexorably drawn in despite these erratic entries and despite the fact that I find myself rolling eyes as yet again the plucky team of outsider detectives fight to keep their Peculiar Crimes Unit open in spite of dark forces, usually emanating from the greasy environs of the Civil Service or their own senior leadership.

It has been suggested that all crime novels fit into one of just a handful of recognisable forms and I largely go along with this theory. As such, Fowler’s Bryant and May stories are clearly rooted in Poe’s Dupin and into the Grand Guignol tradition of early 20th Century French school of crime fiction. Indeed, in ‘White Corridor’ Fowler himself cheekily makes this nod, explicitly referencing the ‘Murders in The Rue Morgue’. Being 21st Century novels, however, Fowler plays with traditions and expectations (‘White Corridor’ also contains a Locked Room mystery a-la-Gaston Laroux’s ‘Yellow Room’ as one of the narrative arcs). And whilst Fowler doesn’t quite break the fourth wall in the way that Edmund Crispin did within some of his Gervase Fen novels (his final novel, ‘The Glimpses Of The Moon’, from 1977, is generally regarded as Not One Of His Best but I admit I love its bonkers post-modern take on country living in the 70s) Fowler very much takes the nascent post-modern roots of Crispin and lets them run wild. And there’s the rub. For to me, the wildness feels just that little too contrived. Too often it feels excessively exuberant and I find myself inwardly groaning and shouting “yeah, yeah, let’s just crack on with the story shall we?”

Striking the right balance of sharing prior information about characters and contexts in individual novels within an extended series is of course a tricky challenge, but for me Fowler over-eggs the pudding. Christie is adept at weaving the threads of character and context through her Poirot and Marple tales for example, whilst Sayers does it exquisitely within the Wimsey books (the counter argument I know is that Christie isn’t really a CHARACTER writer and Sayers is… well, Sayers is Sayers). I’m now five books into the Bryant and May series and I’m already frustrated at so much of the books being taken up with telling me things I already know. This is doubly frustrating because at their core these five novels have fast paced and thrilling narratives. For me however they just take too long to get going and even when they do they are too often derailed by extended and extraneous meanderings into any number of tangential asides (and don’t get me started on the Steampunk wet dream of ‘the device’ in ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’). The novels are hardly weighty but I’d argue they could do with a brutally efficient editor unafraid to put a blue line through extended sections, trimming them to something of a Campion-like length. Hardened fans of the series would no doubt balk at this and suggest this would be to remove exactly the things that they enjoy about the books, and whilst I understand such a stance it is, of course, wrong.

All of these frustrations are exacerbated perhaps because Bryant and May ARE such intriguing characters, not least because there is something endearing about them being so dashed OLD in most of these first five novels. Are they caricatures? Well, yes of course they are, but this is hardly a criticism, for Fowler plays up to this with all of his characters (certainly the recurring ones), illuminating them mostly in a light of common expectation with the occasional punctuation of darkness or a burst of hard-edged grittiness to give lie to preconceptions. And of course Fowler does a fine job of drawing threads from the past and weaving them into the contemporary present (and vice-versa). In doing so he establishes notions of motive (and by implication human nature) as being essentially timeless, with just contextual colouring being rendered by any particular point in time.

Intriguingly of course, my frustrations themselves are almost exactly those with which Fowler sketches the relationship between Bryant and May. Their relationship is fired by an undertow of exactly this exasperation and perhaps it is to Fowler’s credit that he understands his readers will approach the books from the perspective of one or other of the main characters. If this is the case then I am most assuredly a May (a tendency to minimalism organisation and logic, though without the looks and the appeal to women) and the books themselves the Bryant (endlessly frustrating; prone to disappearing down rabbit holes of obscure detail; occasionally rambling; too ‘smart’ for their own good; prone to obscuring the obvious with personal obsessions). Ultimately, although the relationship may be built on a tension of opposites it nevertheless brings a strange kind of pleasure and fulfilment.

So will I continue to explore further in the series? Almost certainly, yes, although I think I may need a break of a few months filled with something more focused and perfectly perfunctory, a purpose for which Simenon’s ‘Maigret’ strikes me as perfectly suited (Simenon’s spare brush strokes describe Maigret with a deftness of touch any author would do well to study). But that, as they say, is another story for another time.

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