Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler

Reviewed by Jeanne

The PCU (Peculiar Crimes Unit) has always had to scramble to exist. They infuriate those in power with their unorthodox method of doing things and their even more unorthodox personnel—never mind that they get things done.  It’s the way they get things done that’s the problem. Arthur Bryant is a historian, not a policeman, with an imagination that tends to run a bit toward the occult and knowledge of London history that would put Britannica to shame. Besides, he’s not nearing retirement age, he’s tottered past it and is lurching toward eternity.  His partner John May is younger which isn’t saying much at all. The rest of the staff are a motley crew as well, mostly people who didn’t quite fit in with the regular force.  None of them seem to have much respect for authority or proper procedures, which is why the PCU always seems to be on the verge of being shut down.

Now, however, they’ve been handed a case which could make the Unit’s existence a good deal less precarious, providing they can reach a successful conclusion.  Oscar Kasavian, an old enemy of the PCU who has tried to shut them down repeatedly, has approached them with a personal problem.  His beautiful young wife has been behaving very strangely for reasons he can’t understand, claiming to be chased by demons and harassed by witches.  She’s even causing some public scenes, which could not only end Kasavian’s career but could damage international relations.

Bryant and May accept the case, with a condition:  they also want to investigate the case of a young woman who was found dead in a church. There’s no apparent cause of death, but also no reason why a healthy young woman would expire sitting in a pew. There may or may not be a connection with Sabira Kasavian, but one way or the other the PCU is going to solve these cases.

This is the second Bryant and May mystery I’ve read and I enjoyed it even more than the first, despite the fact that I’m not reading these in order as is my wont.  They’re not exactly traditional mysteries.  Actually, they’re not traditional anything, being a mixture of mystery, thriller, puzzle, historical survey, and humorous tale with a splash of the paranormal thrown in for good measure.  The protagonists aren’t action heroes but senior citizens with aches and pains, false teeth, and first hand memories of WW II. There are a lot of good one-liners, but the stories aren’t farce.  Neither are cases solved through supernatural intervention but through detective work; the reader can generally accept or deny any supernatural aspect.

My favorite parts of the books are when Bryant stops to give a bit of history of a place in London, usually going all the way back to Roman times.  His seemingly endless knowledge of various sites makes me want to visit that old church or investigate that street. These digressions are more teaser than tedious, usually leaving me to go look up the history of Bletchley Park or the Hellfire Club or an artist to fill out details. The use of folklore and archetypes in Bryant’s summations delights me and the way Fowler combines the fantastical possibilities with reality is a marvel.  I’d recommend the books on those aspects alone, but the books are also pretty darn good mysteries as well. And they make me laugh and want to read passages out loud to unsuspecting bysitters.

These books aren’t going to charm everyone but they certainly captivate me with their wit, knowledge, puzzles, and characters I relate to more and more every day.

P.S. Yes, there is a cat and the name is Crippen.  Why are you not surprised?

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