When a prominent politician is crushed by a fruit van making a delivery, the singular team of Arthur Bryant and John May overcome insurmountable odds to reunite the PCU and solve the case in this brainy new mystery from acclaimed author Christopher Fowler.
On a spring morning in London’s Strand, the Speaker of the House of Commons is nearly killed by a van unloading oranges and lemons for the annual St. Clement Danes celebration. It’s an absurd near-death experience, but the government is more interested in investigating the Speaker’s state of mind just prior to his accident.
The task is given to the Peculiar Crimes Unit—the only problem being that the unit no longer exists. Its chief, Raymond Land, is tending his daffodils on the Isle of Wight and senior detectives Arthur Bryant and John May are out of commission—May has just undergone surgery for a bullet wound and Bryant has been missing for a month. What's more, their old office in King’s Cross is being turned into a vegetarian tapas bar.
Against impossible odds, the team is reassembled and once again what should be a simple case becomes a lunatic farrago involving arson, suicide, magicians, academics and a race to catch a killer with a master plan involving London churches. Joining their team this time is Sidney, a young woman with no previous experience, plenty of attitude—and a surprising secret.
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Old White Males
‘Everything I tell you is a lie.’
The old man had a face like a cheap cushion. It had retained every crease, wrinkle and furrow imprinted upon it by the tumultuous cavalcade of London’s history. It might have staved off the worst effects had it been treated to regular use of moisturizer from about 1955 onwards. Instead it was ‘lived in’ and ‘full of character,’ appealing phrases used to describe old men’s faces for which there was no similar vocabulary about women.
‘I’m afraid that’s a bit on the nose for the first line of a memoir,’ said Simon Sartorius. ‘It might put readers off.’ He tried to rebalance himself on his galvanized stool but the café’s tiled floor was uneven. He should never have let Arthur Bryant pick the venue for their meeting. The café was tiny, loud, overcrowded and steamier than a Turkish bath.
‘I think my readers should know what they’re getting into,’ said Bryant, tucking a paper napkin into his shirt collar as he attempted to read the 8-point Futura type on the menu, which was printed on a brown paper bag. ‘You’re always complaining that I misremember the past so I thought I’d be honest. Every act of recollection alters a narrative. Stories are strange fruits that ripen and mutate.’
‘Yours are meant to be based on fact.’ Bryant’s long-suffering editor waved at the waiter, but it might have been faster and easier to contact life on other planets. ‘You’re an officer of the law presenting his police unit’s true cases to the general reading public. It’s not Lord of the Rings.’
‘A fair point,’ said Bryant, ‘but in this case it’s appropriate to question everything you read.’ He dug what appeared to be a sherbet lemon from his top pocket and managed to hit the waiter on the back of the head. ‘We’d like your second cheapest bottle of red,’ he called.
‘You still haven’t told me anything about the investigation,’ Simon reminded him.
‘Oh, it has all the ingredients you’re looking for, minus the sex, obvs,’ said Bryant cheerfully. ‘I’ve given Cynthia, my ghostwriter, all the case notes.’
‘That’s another thing,’ said Simon. ‘I understand that the lady in question recently spent some time in prison for counterfeiting.’
‘That was a political act, FFS.’ Bryant had lately discovered online abbreviations and insisted on using them in everyday conversation, even though he had no idea what they stood for. ‘Cynthia is an extremely skilled forger. I used her dud fivers for weeks before noticing that Churchill had a moustache. She’s a numismatist and IMHO a fine prose stylist, but apart from that she is first, most passionately and above all a terrible kleptomaniac.’
The waiter slid between them and unscrewed the top from a bottle of red, sloshing it into the editor’s glass with ill grace and poor aim.
‘Are you sure she’s right for the job?’ Simon asked. ‘You haven’t had much luck with your biographers.’ As Bryant’s first biographer had been murdered, he realized that this was something of an understatement. ‘Can she be relied upon?’
‘She isn’t likely to wander off,’ Bryant reassured him. ‘She’s currently under house arrest. She stays cheerful. She has attractively customized her ankle bracelet.’
Simon tried to steer the conversation back to the book. ‘Tell me about the case you want to cover.’
‘Sometimes I look back and wonder if I didn’t dream it.’
‘Let’s hope your readers don’t.’
‘The writer H. H. Munro said that the young have aspirations that never come to pass and the old have reminiscences of what never happened,’ Bryant replied unhelpfully.
Simon winced, not at the aperçu but upon examination of the wine label. ‘Chateau’ was spelled wrong. ‘How did you find this place?’ he asked.
‘The ABC Café poisonings,’ said Bryant. ‘I wouldn’t have the mackerel.’
That was the problem with Mr Bryant, his long-suffering editor decided. One never knew if he was joking. Looking across the plastic counter at this twinkle-eyed trickster, ancient yet somehow forever stuck in those teenaged years that could make any parent commit murder, Simon weighed up the risks of publishing something that might prove to be a farrago of nonsense. Volumes One and Two had no pending lawsuits and were modestly in profit. So long’s as it’s entertaining, he decided. ‘When do you think we’d be able to take delivery?’
Bryant’s innocent blue eyes swam up at him. ‘Do I get more dosh if Cynthia bangs it out in a fortnight?’
Simon began to doubt the wisdom of recommissioning the series of memoirs that the Sunday Times had called ‘the very definition of unreliability,’ but London’s oldest detective was already raising his glass in a toast.
Introduction to the forthcoming book The Nick of Time: Memorable Cases of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, Vol. 3, as told to Cynthia Birdhanger, Random House, Hardback, £18.99
My name is Arthur Bryant, and I’m one of two senior detectives at a specialist London crime unit. Perhaps you’ve read my earlier memoirs. Working in homicide really takes it out of you. If you thought I was an old man in those days, you should see me now. My face looks like an apple someone left on a warm windowsill for a year. A list of my ailments would run to the size of a telephone directory, assuming there’s anyone left alive who remembers what directories were. Strongmen tore them in half on television.
I admit I haven’t taken care of myself. I’m in better condition than Naples, but that’s about it. I’m still alive, though, still working with my partner, John May, at the PCU in King’s Cross, London, determined to soldier on even if I occasionally lose my keys, mentally speaking.
The investigation I’m about to describe occurred in strange days. It felt like the time of the Phoney War, that drifting period between Neville Chamberlain’s announcement and the start of the Second World War when everyone was anxious but nothing much happened, except of course it wasn’t wartime. It was somewhere around 2019, I forget exactly when, but a period of such global uncertainty that we couldn’t discuss our fears without rancour.
Abnormal was fast becoming the new normal, and it was an abnormally warm spring. I was forced to shed one of my vests in March. Normally they see me through to 21 June, a time when Londoners ask themselves how it can possibly be Midsummer’s Day when they’re still wearing cardigans.
Strange days . . . did I say that already? Ranted politics in hoppy pubs, high-street shops posting closure notices, acrimony and ineptitude, a skittering spirit in the air. Where once there would have been torchlit riots to set the heads of the guilty upon the poles of London Bridge, instead there was only muddle, mess and moaning.
Nor were the law enforcement units exempt. After a decade of fighting budget cuts, the PCU had hit the buffers and could go no further. At our lowest point we were embroiled in our strangest case.
In order to present this account unambiguously, I must explain what the killer did, the how and why of it all, but that will not be enough. I still feel I failed and that justice was not served. I ask myself: What was it really about?
The majority of crimes are senseless. The few which are premeditated end up on our desks, but this nearly became another unsolved London mystery. Some of you may think that my career as a police officer sounds far-fetched, but what you consider shocking I regard as routine. We are daily steeped in the banality of violent death.
OK, Cynthia, over to you. You can work at my desk as soon as your anklet comes off but don’t ‘liberate’ anything. I’ve counted my pens.
Cynthia’s my ghostwriter. She’s a lovely woman but a bit of a career tea leaf, and tends to go on the nick when she’s got the itch for it. She’s just returned from another little holiday at Her Majesty’s pleasure after covering a CCTV camera with tin foil and whipping an Asprey’s tiara into her bottomless handbag. I’m giving her my notes on the case so she can check them against the facts and tell me I got everything wrong, then write it up in a form that has ‘reader appeal,’ whatever that means. I tell her all facts are adjustable. It wouldn’t kill her to make me a bit younger. The trouble is, when you leave it to a biographer to fill in the blanks they get carried away. Cynthia’s prose has a purple tendency and you can’t always tell if what you’re reading is real or a Jeffrey Archer, but apart from that she seems up to the job.