Bryant & May – The Lonely Hour (2019) by Christopher Fowler

4 a.m. in the morning, the lonely hour, and a taxi driver is murdered on Hampstead Heath, the victim of a satanic ritual. A man apparently jumping from a bridge is found to have been stabbed first. A series of unconnected attacks, all linked by the time – 4 a.m. The other potential victims know what they have in common, but what did they do to inspire someone to hunt them down, one by one?

Arthur Bryant, John May and the rest of the Peculiar Crimes Unit head into the night to track down the killer, but they have more than a killer to deal with. With frictions running high in the unit, enemies plotting their downfall from without and members of the team dealing with their own issues, this might be exactly the wrong time to be hunting a master criminal. If indeed that is what they are hunting…

Well, that was all sorts of excellent. As you might have spotted, as I read it last month, it was my book of the month for June, because even now, four days after I finished it, I’m still thinking about it.

It’s been a common gripe (although that’s really overstating it) is that Arthur Bryant gets more of the limelight than his partner in this series. It’s understandable, May is Ernie Wise to Bryant’s Eric Morecambe – it can be hard to notice the straight man behind the clown. But here, by driving something of a wedge between our heroes, Fowler gives us more of a look at John May by himself and there’s an element of tragedy about him that, while has been present in past books, is brought to the fore here.

To clarify what I said about Bryant here, there is so much more to him than comic relief – it can’t be easy for Fowler to write him, given so many of his habits and mannerisms are played for laughs to an extent, and still produce a real character who draws you in and makes you care about him. Hell, you find yourself caring about all of the leads, even… well, better not mention the one who takes a really dark turn here.

And the plot is delightful. While we know the name of the villain early on, there’s so much more to find out, twists that are drip-fed to the reader at a perfect pace, with some genuine surprises in the plot. There’s something quite original about this killer that I won’t even hint at, but this is not a traditional serial killer tale.

Oh, and then there’s the cliffhanger – a genuine surprise – that takes us into the next book, Oranges and Lemons, which is out at the end of the month. And you’ll be seeing a review of that soon, as I’ve got a review copy from NetGalley of that one…

I wonder – what would someone make of this if this was their first Bryant & May book? I think Fowler does a good job of bringing the casual reader up to speed. But why would you want to start here? Go back and start at the beginning – there are fifteen novels and two books of short stories in this most consistently excellent series. And as I said, there is at least one more to come…

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