First published: UK, Doubleday, 2006
A tour-de-force—thematically complex, intelligent, sinister and surprising.
Fowler is a major discovery of mine—he’s vivacious and very funny, although some of the humour is rather black and the mood is often dark and sinister, with serial killers, religious conspiracies and the hidden history of London all playing major parts. He’s also—with Hill—carrying on the tradition of the imaginative, literary, comico-sinister detective story that began with Chesterton and included Sayers, Allingham, Mitchell, Innes and Crispin. (He’s a great fan of both Crispin and Mitchell, and has written about them for the Independent.)
This is the best of his I’ve read. It involves the impossible murders of minor celebrities, which may be connected to the Leicester Square Vampire, who killed May’s daughter in a bungled trap. The solution is startling and surprising—but, like Mitchell’s Saltmarsh Murders, inevitable in retrospect: everything fits together (‘the paradoxical impossibility of Saralla White’s murder) and it’s thematically true. (And isn’t it good to have a modern writer who’s still bothering to clue and construct plots?)
The book’s main theme is youth vs. old age; it ‘grew from a news report in The Times [in 2005] that highlighted the youthful need to idolise and the need of older people to demonise’. The book is an indictment of modern celebrity culture, with its emphasis on cheap, fleeting immortality. The murderers—vicious schoolboys, taught by a Derridean deconstructivist opposed to any code of values—create a phantom super-celebrity murderer, the Highwayman. The Highwayman is used for publicity by a daily magazine, and becomes a demi-god (in a chapter entitled ‘Deification’) and a cult hero like Robin Hood.In contrast, Bryant and May represent enduring, civilised values.
· Fowler not fond of modern society—inhumanity / anti-humanism of technology, greed, celebrity culture. Bryant & May = intellect & emotion.
In Which Mr Bryant Suffers For Art
And Mr May Hunts A Highwayman
When a controversial artist is found dead in her own art installation, inside a riverside gallery with locked doors and windows, the only witness is a small boy who insists that the murderer was a masked man riding a stallion.
Then a television presenter is struck by lightning while indoors…clearly, they’re the kind of impossible crimes that only Bryant & May can solve. But Bryant has lost his nerve following a disastrous public appearance, and May is fighting to keep the unit from closure.
With a sinister modern-day highwayman bringing terror to the London streets, the detectives track their suspects to an exclusive school and a deprived housing estate. But the highwayman starts to become a national hero, and the public turns against them…
Exploring the dark side of celebrity, the conflicts of youth and class, and the peculiar myths of old London, Bryant & May are back on the case with a vengeance…
BRYANT: That’s what happens when you get older. You become irritated by the views of others for the simple reason that you know better and they’re being ridiculous. Some silly man will start complaining about police brutality until I want to beat him to death with my stick.
‘I’m dead-serious when I say I believe Fowler’s work will one day stand alongside Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie in terms of prestige. He’s simply that strong. Mystery fans have no reasonable excuse to ignore him – or his invaluable creations – any longer’ – Bookgasm