Monday, May 16, 2016

Bryant and May and the Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

Reviewed by Jeanne
When a financier is accused of corruption, people take to the streets in an “Occupy Wall Street” action albeit in the London banking district.  At first the mobs are peaceful enough, but then one night a Molotov cocktail is thrown at the door of a bank and a sleeping vagrant is burnt alive.  It appears at first that it was just a protest gone terribly wrong. Then when a second victim dies a gruesome death involving fire and also has a connection to the same bank, it begins to look more like premeditated murder.

Or at least that’s how it appears to Arthur Bryant, the senior member of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. The PCU is one of those special units that those in authority would just as soon forget about.  In fact, the only reason they’re called in at all is that the regular London police force is preoccupied with the riots and it’s felt that the PCU can’t possibly cause any trouble by just identifying a body.  Arthur is troubled not only by the method of the deaths but by the timing: it’s just before Guy Fawkes Day, when bonfires and fireworks are a prominent symbol. His partner May isn’t quite as convinced; and besides, he’s more concerned about Arthur’s sudden lapses of memory.

These books aren’t for everyone; they certainly aren’t for those seeking a page-turning thriller. They also aren’t for those who want their murders grim and their detectives grimmer, nor for those who want a bit of a fluffy murder thrown in with lots of laughs.  So why do I love these books so much?

I love the digressions into the history of London, both the land and the people.  I love the folklore that blends into every tale.  I love learning all the little details such as the origin of the word “bon fire” and how that fits into both folklore and history.  I like the cleverness to the humor which is never smug. (The head of the PCU is Darren Link, who actually has no control and very little clue as to what is going on with the department, hence his nickname “Missing.”) I love that these characters grow and change, not always for the better.  I love that Fowler isn’t predictable in the way things turn out, even killing off a character unexpectedly but not gratuitously.  I love that Arthur Bryant is a genuinely old person with sometimes disquieting habits (pulling out his false teeth at inopportune times, for instance, or proceeding to eat a lint- covered humbug that has been in his coat pocket for months) instead of being a guy with a touch of grey who complains about a touch of arthritis all the while racing down streets to collar a perp.  I love that the mystery is solved even though Bryant and May approach the problem from two different angles entirely to arrive at the same conclusion. And, last but not least, while the crimes can be grisly the books have a strong sense of humor about them.

In this book, for example, I learned a great deal about the London financial district and how it came to be (the Great Fire of London played a role), background on Guy Fawkes and Samhain, plus the relatively new influence of American Halloween in UK. (One theory is that the latter is just a ploy to sell plastic orange pumpkins and costumes.) Fire is examined both as something real and as symbolic, a purifying agent, a chance for rebirth. I got to spend time with characters I’ve come to know and love, and I had a wonderful time doing it.

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