In Christopher Fowler's "Bryant and May on the Loose," the members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit are unemployed, after being forced to vacate their offices at Mornington Crescent in London. The PCU was designed to handle "specialized cases and crimes (mostly homicides) which could be considered a risk to public order and confidence if left unresolved." However, the "anti-establishment and subversive behavior" of its detectives repeatedly landed the PCU in hot water with the Home Office, and it was only a matter of time before angry higher-ups disbanded the unit.
Meanwhile, the PCU's most senior detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May, are handling their new status very differently. John, who remains dignified and composed, is doing his best to comfort his disconsolate granddaughter, April, who loved working in the PCU. On the other hand, Bryant spends endless hours wallowing in self-pity and irritating his beleaguered housekeeper, Alma. Arthur stubbornly refuses to answer the telephone or leave his house; every day, he looks more aged and shriveled, like "a frightened monk."
Fowler starts out promisingly, with a delightfully droll hand-written note left for the successors to the PCU. The new tenants are warned about such things as "the funny smell in the crisper" of the refrigerator: "It's been like that ever since Mr. Bryant left a foot in it." There is no question that the quirky PCU (and especially the eccentric Arthur Bryant) do not fit into London's idea of modern policing. Officials in the Home Office care more about statistics, image, and conformity to standard codes of conduct than they do about results. Unfortunately, with no equipment, money, status, or technical backup, it seems that the PCU is gone for good.... Or is it?
Fortunately for our team, several bodies turn up in a strategically important part of London--King's Cross--which is in the midst of an expensive redevelopment project. If word were to get out that there is a dangerous killer on the loose, panic could ensue. Who better to take care of this nasty problem than our old hands from the PCU? Hurriedly, Bryant, May, and their colleagues reconnect and put their heads together. For Arthur, this inquiry is a new lease on life and an opportunity to flaunt his arcane knowledge of his beloved city's geography, myths, and pagan rituals.
Although it is a treat to spend time with Bryant and May, DS Janice Longbright, forensic pathologist Giles Kershaw, DC Colin Bimsley, and Sergeant Jack Renfield, among others, the case that they tackle is even weirder and more confusing than usual. It features such disparate elements as a man prancing around dressed as a stag, decapitated corpses, and a psychotic and brazen villain with an unquenchable thirst for mayhem. The second half of the book slides inexorably downhill, as we are subjected to an endless recitation of arcane legends and far-out theories that, more often than not, lead to dead ends. Although Fowler's trademark cheeky humor is always bracing and often laugh-out-loud funny, it cannot make up for the lack of an engrossing and entertaining mystery at the heart of the novel.