Christopher Fowler, Ten Second Staircase (A Bryant & May Mystery) (Bantam, 2006)
Come in, do sit down by the fire. It's quite cold and wet this late summer afternoon, isn't it? It certainly has been a good afternoon for staffers here at Green Man to cozy up to a fireplace and read something rather tasty!
I'm listening to 'Jack Hall' off Steeleye Span's Live In Nottingham recording as I think about this novel -- given the rich mythopoeic underpinnings of this novel, this Steeleye Span song quite appropriate! Let's have a cup of tea, earl grey with a spot of cream, while we look at this novel. . . .
What an odd but delightful affair this mystery novel is. If you've read my reviews before, you know that I love a good mystery series with fantastical elements like there were in Deborah Grabien's Haunted Ballads series where 'the ghosts are very real and many, many folk can experience their presence'. Well, things are even weirder here with everything from Bryant and May to the city of London itself being every so quirkily out of kilter. I must confess that I asked the good folks at Bantam to send along a review copy (which they promptly did) because a local bookstore had Ten Second Staircase face out in its mystery section and the cover art with its odd neo-victorian look caught my eye. Just having finished the Haunted Ballads series, I was looking for another mystery series to spend some time with, and I do believe that I have found it!
This Christopher Fowler novel is indeed called 'A Bryant & May Mystery' and it features quite probably the oldest and oddest set of detectives in any mystery series I know of -- Arthur Bryant and John May who first joined the Peculiar Crimes Unit during the London Blitz of the early 1940s! Bryant is, by my estimate, a bit north of eighty years and feeling every bit of his age, both mentally and physically, but May is maybe a half decade younger and in much better shape. Arthur Bryant seems to inherently believes in the supernatural as being at the root of their peculiar mysteries, but May is more of a rationalist. Full House Dark, the debut novel in this series, which I am reading next, won the Best Novel aka the August Derleth Fantasy Award in 2005 from the British Fantasy Society, which suggests that Arthur is sometimes right!
Ten Second Staircase starts off with a very peculiar crime -- apparently a supernatural apparition called The Highwayman has ridden (!) into an art galley to murder a controversial artist by making her part of her installation. There are witnesses who say that is exactly what happened and no reason to doubt their word. A second murder just as horrifying takes place and then more murders will take place -- each seemingly impossible, as many are variants on the classic locked room mystery so beloved by British mystery writers. At each murder, The Highwayman is seen -- though none can agree on his stature. A media feeding frenzy ensues, with one particularly corrupt editor at a London tabloid willing to do anything to keep the story going as it sells her papers very well indeed. And to complicate circumstances to beyond the breaking point, the Home Office, which now has authority over PCU after it was transferred there from the Met, wants to shut down the Peculiar Crimes Unit. So the Home Office has told them to solve an an old unsolved case, the so-called Leicester Square Vampire, which cost the life of the daughter of one of the detectives, or PCU will be no more.
Though the mystery itself appears to have a mundane logic to it when all is done and said, I'm not quite sure that is all there is to The Highwayman with his leather leggings, crimson, black mask, and tricorn hat. Fowler offers up a hint early in the novel. The Highwayman is more than what can be thought of as rational. Indeed it entirely possible that The Highwayman, a living myth of London itself, may indeed exist. Bryant, for all his ramblings, looking like a merely obsessed old man may actually have tapped into the great mythos which is London Herself, a living city so old that history itself has become myth. Indeed like Simon Green's Nightside, the dark heart of London, or Neil Gaiman's London Below in his Neverwhere novel, Fowler's London is a reflection of that very, very long history.
Fowler has written an interesting tale that has a superb plot, good pacing, and well-drawn characters as even the secondary characters here such as May's granddaughter April are believable in their actions. How good is it? Good enough that I plan on reading the other three novels in the series over the next few weeks! And you should plan on doing the same after Ten Second Staircase.