Monday, January 31, 2011

Don't bet against the dotty old guy

kw: book reviews, fiction, mysteries

Add a gaggle of truly nerdy students, ancient anarchists, a murderer (or several), and a couple of elderly eccentric detectives to the London underground, and stir well. You get not just a rollicking murder mystery, but a sort of "cousins of Holmes and Watson"—their crazy cousins. Bryant and May off the Rails by Christopher Fowler is apparently the eighth B&M mystery. Fortunately, there are few inside jokes to distract one, because as the author tells us right off, each volume stands by itself.

Arthur Bryant and John May are the lead detectives of the Peculiar Crimes Unit (I had to look it up; of course it is imaginary, but if only…). They manage to accomplish more by pottering around than a roomful of more "by the book" gumshoes. They are the odd couple of the genre, Bryant having the well-cluttered room, and mind, while May is more buttoned-down, though with a "culch pile" of his own. (Culch pile is my mother's word for that box or drawer or room full of miscellany we all accumulate and dare not get rid of. "Culch" derives from "culture".)

They are confronted with a criminal who has committed a murder during a burglary that went wrong, been apprehended, and escaped while killing a police guard with a skewer, an oversize ice pick. Now he is suddenly seen as much more dangerous, and the entire PCU is tasked to nab him, and given a rather brisk deadline. The natural habitat of this "Mr. Fox" is the Tube, the London underground (subway to an American), so the action focuses there.

The chapters have various viewpoints and voices. Certain ones are stream-of-consciousness of a desperate criminal, and I gradually became convinced that there were two or three, not just one murderer. The PCU are looking for a single perpetrator, but as the body count rises, it is difficult to imagine that the crimes are connected. Initial clues lead the detectives to a houseful of students, who seem very unlikely to be associated with any of the crimes. But Bryant has a feeling…

How big is the world's largest flash mob? One of the students does his best to assemble it, while the others play games of their own. Meanwhile, a witness who knows who Mr Fox really is has been attacked, but is getting out of the hospital, and the PCU uses him for bait. The denouement took me by surprise, as I'd picked out a different couple of persons for the real murderers.

That is the fun of these mysteries. The author's job is to mystify the reader, and the reader's to see through the deceptions. Mr. Fowler does a masterly job of it. I seldom like mysteries with a body count this high, but he certainly kept me going in this one.

1 comment:

christopher fowler said...

See, that's what I do Mr Polymath. I lure you in with my wily old men and then uppercut you with a bonkers (but fair) mystery. Try 'The Victoria Vanishes' or 'White Corridor' for more unguessable twists!