Bryant & May Off The Rails by Christopher Fowler

Off The RailsArthur Bryant and John May are the octogenarian (or are they?) detectives in charge of the possibly-soon-to-be-reinstated Peculiar Crimes Unit of the Metropolitan Police. Charged with investigating the sort of crimes that the normal police force wouldn’t have a clue where to start with, the reinstatement depends on catching Mr Fox, a chameleonic murderer from the previous book who has given the PCU a very personal reason to catch him.

Meanwhile, the unit’s attention is drawn to the murder of a young woman in Kings Cross Underground station, killed by being pushed down one of the very long flights of stairs. When her body is examined, an odd sticker is found on her back. As more deaths follow, it seems that Mr Fox may be up to his old tricks – or is something else going on?

Probably not going to be a popular opinion, but I’m divided on this one. There’s a lot of love out there for this series, but for me, this one had a couple of problems. Let’s deal with the positives first, though.

First off, the writing is fantastic –  Christopher Fowler has a real talent for bringing London to life, both past and present – and the characters, in particular Arthur Bryant, leap off the page. For such a bizarre character, it seems strangely satisfying that he seems, at times, the most normal person in the PCU – or indeed, the whole book. Unfortunately, this does push his colleagues, even May, into the background, but he’s such entertaining company, this isn’t a problem. The only other character who fascinates as much as Bryant is the elusive Mr Fox. And herein lies the book’s problem for me. The sort-of-duel between Bryant and Fox is much more interesting that the other main plot strand, which takes up at least half of the book. If the Fox story wasn’t there, it would be a perfectly decent mystery, but the Fox story is there, and I, for one, wish it had taken up the lion’s share of the page count.

I’m going to have to veer dangerously close to a spoiler here as I have one other misgiving to voice. Fowler has always made a point of weaving London’s history into his narrative – indeed, that’s one of the reasons that I love his writing. But the incorporation of a relatively recent event, and the way that it is incorporated, struck a sour note for me, and I’m not a Londoner. I haven’t heard a mass outcry of “Bad Taste” over this, but, to be honest, I’m a little surprised. I don’t consider myself particularly reactionary, but when a certain revelation was made, I put the book down to have a bit of a think about the appropriateness of it. Having said that, it did give some added weight to one of the characters… I know that some of my readers have read the book – if you can work out what I’m talking about, how did this section come across to you? UPDATEPlease do read the comment from Christopher Fowler himself (scroll down from here) defending this which makes me look like a bit of a chump.

On the other hand, there is a very enjoyable meta-conversation between Bryant and Raymond Land, the PCU boss, that deals with some of the inconsistencies in the series. Normally, this sort of thing gets on my nerves, but it was very well done. Made me laugh a lot.

So, overall, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as some of the others in the series – the first five in particular are outstanding – and I’ll certainly be back for more. Oh, and a word of warning. Read the preceding book first – it’s better, IMHO, and is rather spoiled in this one.

18 comments

  1. IMO, the very best of the series is THE MEMORY OF BLOOD. It combines Fowler’s strengths with a bit more conciseness than the previous few books. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.

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  2. I’ve read the book but I have no idea what you are talking about regarding the “bad taste” topical reference. Fowler is an opinionated writer as anyone who reads his blog will tell you. Slipping commentary into his novels wouldn’t surprise me. And he has been known to step over the bad taste line more than once. He does commit that series mystery writer’s sin of revealing too much of the previous book in this one.

    Anyway, when I read …OFF THE RAILS I spent too much time drawing comparisons to KING SOLOMON’S CARPET by Ruth Rendell. I liked …OFF THE RAILS, but it’s not one of the better books. The ending, however, did surprise me something that doesn’t often happen in the B&M books — at least in my reading of them.

    THE INVISIBLE CODE has now taken the place as my favorite book in the series. Finally, his love for London arcana and bizarre murders blend together seamlessly. There is no schizoid or fragmentary feel to the latest book as I often get in many of the earlier entries.

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  3. OK, no-one seems to get what I’m talking about. The reason behind Mr Fox’s… insanity, for want of a better word, is linked to a real tragedy that occurred, claiming a number of lives, less than thirty years ago. And more than just linked, to be honest. I don’t think people’s memories are that short…

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  4. I really have to take issue with you about this. First, I live in King’s Cross, London, right next door to the station where the tragedy took place, and was at the station itself on the morning it occurred. Let me stress that this was a quarter of a century ago – 25 years is a long time, and since then a far more terrible tragedy happened here in exactly the same spot on 7/7 – yet that is often used in fiction, as is 9/11.
    Second, we’re a hardy lot. We survived constant IRA bombings through my childhood, often one a week in central London, to the point where Londoners became extremely blase about such occurrences and told each other very black jokes. My PA Sally was having her hair done when the Harrods bomb went off, and carried on getting a perm. When the Oxford Street bombs exploded, everyone complained that about having to change tubes to get to the shops.
    In Soho, beside my office, a pub called the Admiral Duncan was the scene of a bomb attack carried out by Neo-Nazi David Copeland in 1999. We were in there just minutes before, and saw the devastating effects of the nail bomb.
    In 1997 King’s Cross suffered three terrible terrorist attacks in one morning, and I was caught up in the aftermath as I tried to get to work. I’m less comfortable using these as a plot device, although I have used one particular event that came to light as the basis of a short story, and quite a few authors have used the attacks in novels without complaint. But in the case of this earlier accidental tragedy, 25 years really is a long time. The Blitz was being used as a plot device almost immediately after it happened. As far as I am aware, you are the only person to take exception to the idea.
    The accident is better understood now – it had nearly happened twenty times before at the station in the preceding months. Like most Londoners I’m sensitive about tragedy but only to the point of reason. One thing you might not notice is just how much of the B&M books is actually true – some of the smallest incidentally tragedies have their roots in our history. It’s a chaotic, messy city with a lot of ongoing drama, and is something we’re used to dealing with. The important thing is to keep a moral and historical perspective.

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    • Thank you so much for putting this across so eloquently, Christopher. The historical elements to the series are one of the main attractions for me and it’s clear from your argument that I’ve been oversensitive about something that I have little reason to be. I’ll put a note in the body of the blog referring readers to this comment.

      Very much looking forward to Memory of Blood, by the way.

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      • Excellent! One last point about London’s real-life tragedies and accidents – they get incorporated very quickly and openly into the fabric of city life, then it’s business as usual. After the Admiral Duncan nail-bomb, the new light that went into the pub ceiling had engraved messages of tolerance embedded in it. Accidents get plaques – terrorist acts don’t. I think it’s a way of placing life and death events in order, where they can be discussed, examined and even used in the city’s mythologies.
        You have two new novels to go in the series over there, and I’m at work on volumes 11 and 12 right now!

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