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Locked Room Reviews:
Christopher Fowler’s The Ten Second Staircase
Another great Bryant & May mystery!
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There is something about the Bryant and May mysteries that makes it a pure joy to sit down and slip into their world. I have enjoyed many good mysteries in recent years, but I would be hard pressed to name one that is the equal of Fowler’s ‘The Water Room’, and while ‘The Ten Second Staircase’ may not be quite as good, it is still one of the better new mysteries I have encountered in several years!
I hate to admit it, but I have become a true unrepentant fan of this remarkable mystery series. What makes them so special? It is actually quite hard to define. It begins with the basic idea of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, created during WWII to handle sensitive cases that might effect public morale. Now, over half a century later, the two original detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May, the perfect geriatric odd couple of polar opposites, are still in charge, tasked with solving crimes so bizarre and fantastic that they often challenge our credulity. Bryant and May long ago formed a tenuous working harmony somewhere between Bryant’s blatant eccentricities and lateral thinking and May’s flawed common man approach. May is the social, methodical, logician who tries to analyse these outlandish incidents, while Bryant is a reclusive crotchety academic, who turns to myth and the dark side, as he tries to follow the twisting flow of the killer’s mind. Yet, it is far too simplistic to paint such a contrary picture of this extraordinary relationship; beneath all his eccentric habits, Bryant has a simple heart of gold, while May’s usual good judgement is too often impaired by his highly charged emotional life.
To make this situation even more complex, the PCU is far much more than Bryant and May. First there is Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright, the talented, 50’s style gorgeous, organizer of the PCU office, who is following in the footsteps of her mother, Bryant and May’s first assistant. It is quite clear that nothing would ever be accomplished without her unique mix of motherly care and sexy vamping of the opposition. Then there is the clumsy, but endearing, Constable Colin Bimsley, who is paired with the tough Meera Mangeshkar, a product of the mean streets of London. These two constables do all the plodding door to door work, while the two technical members of the unit, Dan Banbury, the crime scene manager, and Giles Kershaw, the forensics guru, sift through the physical evidence, despite a paucity of resources. The techs are aided only by the cranky unit pathologist, Oswald Finch, who may be even older than Bryant and May, though, in this volume, the team gains another nepotistic new member, May’s agoraphobic granddaughter, April. Still, it is almost a misnomer to call this the Bryant & May series, when it would be more accurate to borrow the title of Fowler’s most recent work – London’s Glory! The true star of these mysteries is the vibrant, writhing, underground life of gritty and enchanting London. It is a world which is in constant flux, yet never really changes, as it straddles the mists of the centuries. It is also from these eccentric masses that Bryant and May draw their volunteer force of off-beat historians, librarians, clairvoyants, genius savants, dowsers, psychics, witches, and experts in the city’s ‘psychogeographic monsters’, past and present. It is an enchanting parade of all things weird and wonderful, which allows Bryant and May to act as spiritual EMTs, with their fingers on London’s pulse, ready to intervene, as required, to patch up any nasty rents in the city’s spiritual fabric after it expels yet another impossible tumour!
This fourth instalment in the Bryant and May series, begins with yet another attack on the PCU, this time instigated by their titular head, Raymond Land, who suggests they are long overdue for psychiatric evaluation. Long disdained by both their Metropolitan Police colleagues and the Home Office, Land provides the spark that sets off a full blown bureaucratic assault. The PCU is this time faced with the menace of Oskar Kasavian, a home office hit man, who actually locks them out of the PCU just as Bryant and May solve their latest case, as well as an enduring cold case that has haunted their files for several decades. Of course, this is nothing new for the PCU, which is constantly under threat of closure, only to be saved by a stunning last minute solution that proves they are still a viable alternative to modern law enforcement.
Their latest case involves the death of controversial artist Saralla White, who has been drowned in her own ‘installation’ in a gallery located in the former County Hall building on the banks of the Thames, just opposite Big Ben. Someone with considerable power has lifted her off her feet and dropped her into a tank full of formaldehyde and other nasty chemicals, where she now floats in the company of six aborted fetuses that are making a stark comment on the darker realities of abortion. The only witness is a twelve-year-old boy on a school field trip, Luke Tripp, who claims to have seen a Dick Turpin like figure on horseback, regaled in cape and tricorn hat, scoop up the woman and drop her into the exhibit. There is no clear motive, other than the one provided by the crowds of pro-abortionists picketing the gallery, and few physical clues. Even worse, no caped horsemen passed any of the staff, or other visitors, who were present in every possible entrance and exit. The result is obvious. When the press get wind of this story, a new urban legend is born!
The second death in the Highway Man’s escalating career, proves to be another brain twister. The party hardy host of a teenage lifestyle show, Danny Martell, is hit by lightning while exercising alone inside a private gym – as The Highwayman cavorts outside on the pavement. By now it has become quite clear that while The Highway Man may be firmly rooted in the past, he has returned to exact his revenge on worn out minor celebrities, while becoming one himself!
The students at the gallery all attend the elite St Crispin’s Boy’s School, the same school where Arthur Bryant recently caused a near riot by unintentionally insulting the gathered students. Now Bryant and May are constantly drawn back to this school, which sits in stark contrast with the adjoining Rowland Plumbe public housing estate, which is plagued by gang violence and the dank despair of urban poverty. It seems clear that this Clerkenwell neighbourhood holds the key to the various strands of this puzzle, all twisted together with the local legends of The Knight’s Templar, who founded St. Crispin’s and guarded the Blood of Christ, as well as the figure of Dick Turpin, who haunted a local pub, and is embossed on the seal of the Roland Plumbe Association. The question is, which side has resurrected the Highway Man, and why go after minor celebrities? What motive could these malignant youth have for such vicious attacks, other than the same senseless destructiveness that is scrawled across the estate’s walls in an endless maze of colourful graffiti.
To add to Bryant and May’s woes, the investigation into the PCU is also demanding that they solve their longest running cold case. The Leicester Square Vampire is an acrobatic assailant who has bitten far too many victims over nearly three decades, and taken the life of at least four, not the least of which is May’s daughter, Elizabeth, slain in a bungled PCU attempt to flush out this deadly monster. To make matters even worse, this investigation is resurrected, just as Elizabeth’s agoraphobic daughter, April, only nine at the time of her mother’s murder, joins the PCU as an advocate and consultant. The two cases initially appear quite distinct, until Bryant begins to notice an odd pattern which gradually merges the cold case into the current investigation. However, The Highway Man is far from finished! Two more deaths are on his agenda, one minor celeb is showered with gasoline and set on fire, while the other is lured into a booby trapped abandoned building, leaving Bryant and May to wonder how this killer could almost simultaneously parade in front of witnesses at two crime scenes which are separated by miles of London traffic! By this point, time is rapidly running out. The PCU is about to disappear for good, setting these two geriatric detectives adrift, as they desperately scramble for some last minute inspiration that will crack open both series of gruesome deaths.
In several of my latest reviews, I have contrasted the great ‘puzzle masters’ of locked room lit, dependent on clues and plot, with some of the great ‘word painters’ of the modern mystery genre, who create a deep portrait of their characters, set against a vivid landscape that carries the reader to another place and time. However, with Bryant and May, this distinction becomes all but irrelevant. Fowler has unparalleled descriptive powers, yet remains a master of the puzzle plot, with deep and intricate plot lines that will keep the reader guessing right up until the final denouement. I was close on this one, which is better than I fared with the ‘The Water Room’, but I suspect that few will have the entire solution figured out before the final breathtaking scene on the rooftop of The Roland Plumbe estate!
Still, there are a few minor points that must be noted. The weakest part of this story arrives with the first murder. Bryant and May do not fully accept the testimony of Luke Tripp, but they do believe that he saw something which has led him to claim that a highway man on horseback had been inside the gallery. It never seems to occur to this pair of deductive geniuses that the boy might have a good motive for lying – a train of thought which might have proved far more productive! I would also like to briefly note my objection to several reviews which cast Fowler as a John Dickson Carr clone, with Arthur Bryant channeling either Dr. Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale. True, both authors created amazing impossible crimes, but that is about as far as any similarity can be stretched. Fowler’s style of writing is unique, they do not share the same atmosphere, and the PCU creates an entirely distinct protagonist, which is not dependent on a single genius detective. Fowler may never quite equal Carr’s seemingly inexplicable impossible crimes, but his incredible command of the English language is simply stunning, and his knowledge of London is unsurpassed!
Finally, I have a bit of a problem with Fowler’s central theme, which views the “staircase to adulthood” as becoming increasingly irrational and tied to the quest for our ten seconds of fame as “a fast track to immortality”. Fowler is clearly exploring the dark side of our celebrity culture and its tempestuous impact on youth and class, but he doesn’t quite hit the mark. This failure seems to arise from his determined attempt to connect all the disparate London legends, including vampires, highway men, Jack the Ripper, and Robin Hood, as different presentations of one underlying myth. While there may be some similarity between Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, who were both outlaws redistributing the lucre of the rich, stealing a slurp of blood or stabbing prostitutes in back alleys, would seem to spring from a completely separate psychological frame of reference. The Robin Hood figure is essentially your classic rebel, fighting back against an unjust society with guerrilla tactics. Such a figure must accept that the cost of his escalator ride to fame may be the noose, but that is the price, not the goal! However, with the serial killer motif, suicide usually becomes a primary end, with the game focused on achieving the maximum psychological retribution, for imagined or real grievous personal injuries, before exiting in a blaze of glory. All of which suggests, that while the quest for celebrity and our moment of fame is the product in both cases, there are two very different processes at work. Looked at from this perspective, it is hard to accept Fowler’s claim that there is some new motivational element at play. Criminal’s have been expressing various mixtures of personal and social outrage ever since Cain murdered Abel, then headed for the hills to form his band of outlaws! The only real difference today, lies in the fact that modern technology has drastically shortened both our attention span and the time required to achieve celebrity, while simultaneously increasing our technical abilities to identify, pursue and capture the villain. ‘The Ten Second Staircase’ is therefore simply another reminder of the frantic pace of modern society, not an accurate statement about any profound change in human motivations.
So how do we rate ‘The Ten Second Staircase’! I must admit that these are completely addictive mysteries, set upon the glorious stage of a dark and churning London, with some of the most entertaining characters in modern mystery fiction and a whole series of great impossible crimes! To make it even better, this is also a masterpiece of not too subtle humour, that will keep you smiling when your spine is not tingling – and sometimes both at once! Who could ask for more! True, this one is not quite as good as ‘The Water Room’, in my opinion, but it is very close! My few points of contention, as listed above, are quite simply overwhelmed by this extremely well written novel with too many positive points to list in this already over long review! The Bryant and May series are simply one of the most clever and erudite additions to the mystery genre in many years. I find it hard to understand why Fowler does not get far more rave reviews, and I very highly recommend this mystery, which gets another full five stars.
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