Sunday, May 4, 2014

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler (A Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery)

Christopher Fowler is the literary equivalent of a genius mad scientist.

Never has the first installment of a historical mystery series bowled me over so completely. Reading Full Dark House, the first installment in Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit series,was a little like falling in love by being hit over the head and then hugged.

Where, or perhaps, how to begin...? 

First, the writing: the narrative flips back and forth between London during World War II when the two protagonists, Arthur Bryant and John May, are in their early twenties and modern-day London, when the two men are comfortably settling in to their old age.

As a narrative device, the juxtaposition between the men at the different points in their lives, and London herself, help give the story a quick pace that clicks along well.

The friends have seven decades of work partnership and friendship behind them and although this is only the first installment of an entire series the depth of and intimacy of their lifetime together are portrayed convincingly. Not since Holmes and Watson has a deep, sincere and affectionate friendship between two men been better portrayed. Bryant and May have been the constant in each other's lives, through marriages, divorce, children, grandchildren, the introduction of technology in their work and a myriad of small and large markers of the passing of time. 

Second, Fowler has found an entirely new way to interweave research into his narrative. As the existence of my blog indicates, I read a lot of historical mysteries set in London during and after World Wars I and II. So I was surprised at how much I learned from this book about how the war impacted the daily lives of people living in London. There are countless mundane, but fascinating, details woven in the parts of the story that take place during the Blitz, such as the forced intimacy of sleeping in the subway tunnels with strangers.

Third, the dual mysteries are both well plotted, though I did figure the solution out long before the end of the book. That did not, however, keep me from wanting to continue reading.

Arthur Bryant is eccentric and open-minded to the occult, paranormal activity and the afterlife which make him a very refreshing detective. He could grow tedious in his scatterbrained-ness (he is undoubtedly a sponge for information, but doesn't organize it in his mind), and that's where John May helps to balance him out. 

The backdrop of the London theater scene in the midst of the blitz was fascinating and Fowler's experience as a horror writer shines through with each body that turns up.

Finally, how many series begin with the death of a main protagonist? 

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