Arthur 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? UPDATE – Please 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.