Fancying something different to read last week, I sub-borrowed my mother-in-law's library book, the 2008 The Victoria Vanishes by Christopher Fowler, and very much enjoyed it. This is one is Fowler's "Bryant & May" series, which features two London detectives named after the London-based match company. Bryant is described as "a wrinkled tortoise sporting windowpane glasses and a frayed brown trilby, wrapped in a moss-green scarf like an unravelling knitted python"; May as "a ramrod-backed gentleman of debonair demeanour, dressed in a rather gaudy Savile Row suit and a scarlet silk tie". They work for the fictitious Peculiar Crimes Unit, a misfit department of the Metropolitan Police; their cases span a period from the London Blitz to the present day.
In The Victoria Vanishes, Bryant & May investigate a serial murderer who is killing middle-aged women in London pubs (somehow managing to achieve this without concealment); as clues build up to profile the motive, it becomes apparent that there is a deeper conspiracy behind the deaths. Bryant & May meanwhile have their own problems: apart from incipient closure of their department, May has a tumour on his heart; and Bryant, on the edge of retirement, fears his mind could be deteriorating, having a clear memory of seeing one of the victims leaving a pub - The Victoria of the title - that closed 80 years ago. (This is a homage, not one I'd have spotted, to the 1946 The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin).
I've clearly dipped into the mythos at the wrong point. The heroes are elderly and ailing, and the ending of this late book in the series could easily be taken as end of its heroes. I'm pleased to see it's not; however, it looks worth going back and reading the books in chronological order. Apart from being pleasantly quirky police procedural full of black humour and eccentric characters - the Peculiar Crimes Unit has no qualms about consulting witches, mediums and conspiracy theorists - The Victoria Vanishes has (I assume typically for the series) a rich feeling for archetypal London. In one sense it pastiches the mystical/psychogeographical Londons of authors such as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair; in another, it celebrates such 'deeps' of the city through its public houses, whose names and continuity of location reflect ancient events and geography. Without being heavy, the writing is deeply erudite, very English, and steeped in a fascination with the history and curiosities of London. The public houses featured in the novels can be investigated via the annotated Bryant & May London Maps at the author's website.
For more background, see Christopher Fowler's main website and his interesting weblog. Fowler bills himself as "author of urban unease, dark comedy, mystery and horror", and his titles outside the Bryant & May mythos look equally worth investigating.