Writer Christopher Fowler is a cheeky sort. “For many years she had held not so much a torch for John May as a smugglers’ lantern, but his ship had never been tempted to ground upon her rocks.”
That’s from The Victoria Vanishes (2008, filed in Adult Fiction), one in a series of novels featuring the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a London, UK outfit dedicated to solving the murders that leave their regular uniformed police colleagues scratching their heads. Or more likely rolling their eyes.
The Victoria Vanishes is far and away the most amusing of the lot – the funny lies in between, that is, the deadly seriousness of someone murdering women in pubs. (Sample newspaper headline: “WHY NO WOMAN CAN NOW FEEL SAFE.” Sample reader response: “How they love to explain the dangers of independence to us.”)
This crime thriller is filled with British public houses (and includes a guide to the booze cans — sorry, to these community centres that also serve beer — with addresses, at the end). The fine ensemble cast is held together by two senior detectives, both elderly geezers well past retirement age who’ve worked together their entire professional lives and bicker like a married couple.
First there’s Arthur Bryant: “[I]magine a tortoise minus its shell, thrust upright and stuffed into a dreadful suit. Give it glasses, false teeth and a hearing aid, and a whispy band of white hair arranged in a straggling tonsure. Fill its pockets with rubbish. …. And fill its head with a mad scramble of ideas….” He’s the eccentric who always manages to spend five minutes with a medium or white witch on every case, though the murderer is always all too human.
Pair him with John May, the sensible one who’s better preserved, nattily dressed, and who can charm his way anywhere. Together, they can solve anything.
Each novel in the series is filled with London history and a solid murder investigation, plus a handful of running gags. The Peculiar Crimes Unit is always facing imminent closure….
Next, try Bryant And May Off The Rails (2010, in Adult Fiction), which takes place a few books later. A murderer has escaped on the PCU’s watch (it seems the unit is always mixing triumph with rather ghastly errors). This one is set in the London Underground, and is filled with the lost passenger ghost stories that transit geeks love.
The Lennoxville Library has one last PCU novel, Full Dark House (2003). It’s actually set earlier in the series, but you might want to read it later, once you’ve grown to know and love the characters. That knowledge adds poignancy to Full Dark House.
The book recalls the very first PCU case that brought Bryant and May together, and is set during World War Two, as Londoners learn to live with nightly bombing raids. What were these two like as youngsters? Here’s the answer.
It’s also a play on the Phantom Of The Opera, with a killer attacking actors rehearsing a production of Orpheus In The Underworld. It was quite risqué in its day (Jacques Offenbach’s work was first performed in 1858), and its music later inspired the can-can.
You’ll get a kick out of murder with this amusing series, and you can find a handful more Bryant and May mysteries via interlibrary loan.
— Eleanor Brown, December 4, 2015