Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Old Peculiar

I was sitting in the library at the Diogenes Club the other day, when the conversation turned, unsurprisingly, to books. Manton reminded me that it was my turn to recommend a book for the shelves. The club library is maintained from the subscriptions of the members, but there is a tradition that each member in turn must choose a book or books, and justify that choice to his fellow members. If the choice is approved, then library funds will be used to buy a copy for the shelves.

Funnily enough, I had been waiting for the right moment to introduce to my fellow Diogenerians London's longest serving and most unlikely pair of detectives: Arthur Bryant & John May. There are six books in the series, but if I had to choose one as representative, I would probably pick 'Seventy-Seven Clocks'.

Christopher Fowler writes tales of urban unease - not exactly horror, and not quite supernatural - set in a London that most people only catch momentary glimpses of, out the corner of their eye. His city has never quite shaken off it's violent, blood-soaked past, and despite the shiny high-rise office blocks and brightly lit footbridges, it is in the dark alleys and deserted tube stations that he finds his stories.

Arthur Bryant and John May have been members of the Metropolitan Police's 'Peculiar Crimes Unit' since it was set up by Churchill's government at the start of World War 2. The PCU's somewhat vague remit was to tackle any crimes that might cause social unrest, or a lowering of national morale - obviously something which had to be prevented at all costs during the dark days of the blitz. They often found themselves tackling high-profile, possibly politically sensitive crimes, cases which the regular police force did not have the experience or training to cope with.

Indeed, some of their cases were so sensitive, that even sixty years on, details have yet to be released by the National Archives. There are some in Whitehall who say that the world will never be ready to learn the truth about the Deptford Demon, or the secret underground rivers of St Pancras.

Although both of them are now clearly beyond statuatory retirement age, no one seems to know exactly how old Bryant & May are - their records were 'lost' when they moved to their current offices above Mornington Crescent tube station - and they show no signs of wishing to retire. They have always refused to accept promotion and insist on tackling crime 'on the street', something which has not endeared them to their superiors. The acting head (since 1973) of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, Raymond Land, has repeatedly complained to them about the way that they treat their colleagues as equals, the lack of a proper management hierarchy within the unit, and the way that they are always asking completely unqualified outsiders for advice, but all to no avail. The fact that Bryant invariably calls him 'Raymondo' when speaking to him does little to placate him.

On the surface, Bryant and May make a very strange partnership - they are not alike in character or appearance, and they frequently get on each other's nerves.

John May looks younger than his years. He dresses smartly, is computer literate, interested in the latest developments in criminology, and has a freshness of outlook that he attributes to being a life-long admirer of Rousseau. Perhaps as a result of this, he still has no shortage of female companions, however, due to a disasterous misjudgement during a case, that led to the death of his daughter and the break-up of his marriage, he has never really felt able to settle down with anyone else.

By contrast, the only woman in Arthur Bryant's life is his long-suffering landlady, Alma Sorrowbridge, a God-fearing woman who has put up with his carnivorous plants, occult paraphernalia and lethal chemical experiments for decades, possibly because she sees him as a lost soul, one that it is up to her to save.

Bryant leads a more ascetic lifestyle, usually clothed in a selection of worn-out cardigans, under an overcoat of indeterminate age, with something that might once have been a trilby on his head. He makes no attempt to understand anything about the world of technology, and is continually warned about his inability to follow procedural guidelines - much to May's horror, he has a nasty habit of picking up evidence before it has been cleared by the forensic scene-of-crimes officer, saying simply 'We didn't have to worry about that sort of thing in my day', if challenged.

To date, he has managed to destroy or lose seventeen mobile phones, and the police force's IT department have stopped giving him a laptop computer since he somehow managed to reprogram the main Police transmitter so that it could only receive selections from the Pirates of Penzance. He also has a habit of playing vicious practical jokes on his line managers, usually in response to their complaints about his repeated failures to write up his case notes in the properly approved fashion. Simply muttering darkly that 'it's best that you don't know the truth' just seems to irritate them even more, which is, of course, why he does it. It also turns out to be true, most of the time.

Rather than relying on fingerprints and DNA testing, Bryant tends to ask for help from slightly more unorthodox sources - Maggie Armitage, Grand Order Grade IV White Witch and leader of the Coven of St James the Elder (North London Division) is an old friend who has provided help on more than one occasion. He also sometimes calls upon the services of the Insomnia Squad, a loose-knit group of academics, librarians and other rogue intellectuals, who spend their nights on-line, discussing anything that takes their interest, from pagan nature mysticism to quantum computing, before returning bleary-eyed to their jobs in London's museums and art galleries.

Rather worryingly, it is that sort of help that often proves most useful, given the sort of cases that the PCU investigates. Their unique combination of knowledge, skills and experience make Bryant & May ideally suited to tackling London's peculiar crimes.

There are six books in the series.

Full Dark House
The Water Room
Seventy-Seven Clocks
Ten Second Staircase
White Corridor
The Victoria Vanishes

More information can be found at: http://www.christopherfowler.co.uk

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