Regular readers of Crime Pays will have noted my affection for that madcap British duo, Bryant and May. Even thought I cannot for the life of me recall the intricate details of their Byzantine plots - which makes one wonder whenever a former nemesis is mentioned: was that actually in a book or did author Christopher Fowler just make it up and it sounds like one of their actual former nemesi? - I always look forward to getting back in with the Peculiar Crimes Unit gang.
But The Invisible Code (Bantam, 2013), while it did not entirely disappoint, did not delight quite so much as previous offerings in this creative series. True, the gang is all here. Longbright, surely played by Christina Hendricks in the film, and Dan the techno man, and Colin, pining perpetually after Meera. Even ol' Crippen is sklathing around (and there is a twist there, wait for it). They are, as always, on the verge of being shut down, and must must solve the latest case in order to prevent their demise. But this time, the case is given to them by their uber-boss, the always-described "cadaverous" Oskar Kasavian. (At one point, Kasavian admires his hands "marmoreal sheen." (300) I myself imagine him looking more like Drac in "Hotel Transylvania"):
Kasavian's wife is acting out of character, which is to say that she is not acting like a dutiful Home Office wife, and he needs to keep her in line in order to secure a major and sensitive project on which he is working about security, borders, and the European Union. Plus which, he seems to be genuinely in love with her, an emotional state heretofore impossible to imagine for this character.
But Bryant and May, being Bryant and May, somehow manage to put Sabira Kasavian's breakdown together with some seemingly completely unrelated deaths, during which time much running around of picturesque and arcane bits of London ensues. Like all of these stories, it is complicated, but somehow not as gripping. Why?
First, it is not quite as chortle-worthy. Arthur Bryant is now just old, and John May comes across as even more subdued than usual (he's the straight man to Arthur's mad genius). That's not to say that Arthur doesn't still shuffle about in ancient scarves, eating sweeties, and benignly torturing his long-suffering landlady, Alma Sorrowbridge. And things always get interesting when Arthur's cheerfully loony friend Maggie Armitage, "white witch and self-proclaimed leader of the Coven of St. James the Elder" appears, "in a purple woolen tea-cosy hat, a green velvet overcoat and orange leggings. Her glasses, winged and yellow-tinted, hung on a plastic daisy chain around her throat. She looked like a small seaside town celebrating a centenary." (220) But beyond Maggie, and Arthur's encounter with his new neighbor, Brad Pitt (not that one), things sort of potter along here with a little less gleeful abandon than usual.
To be fair, Fowler's stories have always walked a line between hilarity and pathos - Arthur spouts arcana and calls people old sausage, but important and sympathetic characters die suddenly, and there is a thread of quiet despair in John May that is rarely but painfully exposed. Fowler also makes a point of using these stories to reveal the Weird Old London, illuminating forgotten corners of that complex city where desperate or devilish deeds took place or just where people lived, to the fullest extent of the word. There is often a whiff of pedantry about this but it just feels a bit more heavy-handed this time around. "'You know, there's hardly a church in the whole of London that doesn't have something unusual about it. St. Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield has the ghost of a monk who's said to haunt the church looking for a sandal stolen from his tomb. . . . And there are wonderful puzzles in churches" at which point Maggie describes several. (222-3) Thanks for the lecture, I'll be sure to bring this along the next time I'm there.
Finally, there is a scene in warehouse in Whitechapel, that houses giant props for the Spitalfields Art Fair. (ch. 44) Hello, Blane Kern's Mardi Gras World! Didn't we see something like this in Live and Let Die? Not exactly, and maybe only people who have been to Blane Kern's Mardi Gras World would get that sense of literary deja vu, but there it is.
Am I losing my affection for intellectually funny British detectives? Gosh, I hope not. According to the folks at CrimeFictionLover, there is a new B&M just coming out. I'm pretty sure I'll want to read it.
PS. What's up with Crippen? I'm not spoiling it; you'll have to read to find out.