Golden Years of Detection

In 1928, Willard Huntington Wright (better known as S. S. Van Dine) set down “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, which attempted to cement what should and should not be done in detective fiction. His colleagues and readers took Van Dine’s edicts seriously by virtue of the acclaim he’d racked up for his own rule-abiding sleuth, Philo Vance. Eighty-plus years on, the list seems rather quaint. Many of the greatest detective novels written since then gleefully ignore Van Dine’s rules — especially No. 16, which guards against any “long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations,” for “such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction.”

I have a mental image of Arthur St. John Bryant and John May, the London detectives created in Christopher Fowler’s continuing series, chancing upon Van Dine’s fictional detection guidelines not long after publication. They would have been youngsters then, a couple of years past learning how to read, a decade and change from their first meeting as fresh-faced recruits to the Metropolitan Police Force, and 75 years removed from their first joint appearance in Full Dark House (2003) by their creator. And in my fantastical conjuring I see clearly their respective reactions to Van Dine’s treatise: May would have shrugged his shoulders and gone on with whatever more important task he was doing, while Bryant would have noted every word in his head, resolving to do the exact opposite – especially contradicting rule number eight, “chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics.”

I bring up Van Dine because he unknowingly made a fatal error of prediction: detective fiction is not static, and it must change to reflect contemporary culture and human behavior. Yet his 20 rules contain many strands of wisdom about tight plotting and ingenious crimes that are rarely practiced now, for they are out of fashion even with novelists who prefer a lighter, cosier touch with murder. Van Dine would have sniffed at today’s crime fiction practitioners, but might well have keeled over in shock at how Fowler has transmogrified those hallowed principles — and has, in doing so, spun a new and utterly delightful web of tradition-minded mysteries that speak very well to modern tastes.

It’s both ironic and fitting that Fowler would pick up this mantle. He cut his wordsmithing teeth writing horror stories bearing demure titles such as Flesh Wounds and Psychoville. More than 100 short stories, a sideline in humor books, and a recent memoir published in his native Britain hint at his range. And Full Dark House defies reader expectation by introducing May, aged 80, mourning the loss of his longtime (and even more elderly) partner in policing, as Bryant is believed killed by a bomb that rips apart the building housing their place of employ. That would be the Peculiar Crimes Unit, designed to combat crimes so bizarre and impossible for standard police sections to handle that the public might be alarmed were they to learn about them. Bryant and May’s chief task is to make sure they do not, or find solutions before ordinary citizens know too much and are duly terrified.

Such narrative audacity fades out as the Full Dark House flashes back to the Blitz, when the dynamic duo meet, establish their opposing but complimentary personalities, round up the merry band of irregulars to flesh out the remaining PCU positions, and get to work on solving a fiendishly clue-starved case involving a dancer’s death at the Palace Theater. Once the case is solved and the narrative reverts to the present, Bryant’s death (to misquote Mark Twain) proves to be highly exaggerated — and a series is born, albeit in an alternate gear.

Six books after the surprises of Full Dark House, the Bryant and May novels continue to stay within the bounds of formula by straining against them in new ways. The crimes become increasingly outlandish (a river-drowned woman found in a basement in The Water Room; Ten Second Staircase features locked room death by art installation and a person struck dead by lightning…indoors; and in homage to Edmund Crispin’s classic-of-classics The Moving Toyshop [1946], a spate of murders in the pub begin with one establishment that, to Bryant’s chagrin, disappears entirely when visited a second time) as the PCU’s denizens become more fleshed out, their quirks and idiosyncrasies so finely ingrained that it’s unthinkable not to care about them.

What’s not to love about Oswald Finch, the Unit’s resident pathologist, who will not be dissuaded from conducting post-mortems his way, the only way, no matter how much he’s hurried? Or Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright, a second-generation member, part shrewd investigator and part keen prism into the complexities of maintaining one’s feminine dignity and romantic instincts in middle age? Or especially April, May’s granddaughter, who keeps everyone in line as office manager but grapples with agoraphobia so crippling it has brushed her up against death a time or two too much?

Fowler doesn’t live by the credo of “expect the unexpected”; rather the unexpected is expected. The Victoria Vanishes was supposed to close out a six-part-arc: Peculiar Crimes were no longer important, the Unit was disbanded, and while Bryant and May still kicked, they did so with a lesser wallop. But no, here’s Bryant & May On the Loose, jump-starting the PCU’s defibrillator and setting them an even more ridiculous task: solve a spate of gruesome crimes linking headless corpses, gang warfare in Kings Cross, and a mythical beast resembling “the great god Pan himself, Jack-in-the-Green, London’s oldest and most enduring myth” running around the city — while based in a makeshift space without computers, means of communication or even decent furniture. Oh, and they have a week.

Bryant, too, must be coaxed out of stubborn slide into death by inertia to lead the troops, perking up only when May snaps, “There’s a very good reason why you should be interested. It’s a case that can bring down the government.” The elderly gentleman protests, but “on some subconscious level, Bryant knew that the only way to pull himself out of his self-pitying nosedive was to try and solve a murder that no-one else in Central London was equipped to handle.” Murder as confidence booster is, well, peculiar, but so is Arthur Bryant.

The game is on, but Fowler never stops reminding us that there’s much more at risk than games of plotting ingenuity. The novel’s antagonist, Mr. Fox, is the most nihilistic and unpredictable of all those the detective duo have tackled in large part because he is new to murder and thinks it so fantastic that there’s little reason to stop. Bryant defies May’s sighing admonitions that “you sidetrack me from the business at hand” with seemingly tangential juxtapositions that, yet again, prove correct. And when Meera, one of the PCU’s most recent recruits, disapproves of Bryant’s unorthodox methods, May sets her straight: “A week ago he was ready to give up and die. I’d rather have him back in the field investigating feudal rights and necromantic rituals than leave him at home to rot. It doesn’t make any difference to the investigation. Show some respect for once in your life.”

Respect, in fact, lies at the heart of the Bryant and May mysteries. These two, despite creaking joints, bureaucratic tangles, and dangers lurking outside their peripheral vision, remain so formidable that I don’t want the series to end. The books offer joyful entertainment even though darkness never strays too far. Fowler’s plots are delights, but he’s equally handy manipulating reader emotions, doing so with the aplomb of a master puppeteer. His greatest sleight-of-hand feat: we remain painfully aware of how little time Bryant & May have left, even as it seems unthinkable they could disappear. The series will extend further with next year’s installment, Bryant & May Off the Rails. But do they — and their beloved Peculiar Crimes Unit — only have nine lives within them? As much as I hope the answer is no, Fowler must respect his vision as an author no matter what — even if it means saying a tearful goodbye to these two distinguished, conjoined, heart-stealing detectives.