Top critical review
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on 17 January 2015
Having been an avid follower of Christopher Fowler’s works for a number of years, I was excited when he announced he would be writing an entire book featuring his only recurring characters, Detectives Bryant and May of the Metropolitan Police’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. They had appeared in his earlier novel “Darkest Day”, but that was twelve years ago and, despite fleeting glimpses of them in “Soho Black” and “Rune” in 1998, little has been heard of them since then.
Now in their 80s and close to calling the end on their careers, the partnership is bought to a premature end by an explosion at the Bow Street office. Only John May knows that Arthur Bryant was inside. Devastated by the ending of a partnership that had lasted longer than his marriage, May, with the help of their other long time colleague, Janice Longbright, sets about finding who would want to kill his partner.
He discovers that Bryant has been looking back at their very first case together, a series of murders in and around the Palace Theatre during the Blitz. Following his partner’s lead, May suspects that Bryant’s death was related to this investigation and starts delving into their own past.
The story alternates between the two time frames, 1940 and 2003, with the progress of both investigations being followed. This can get a little confusing at times, as there doesn’t seem to be a huge distinction between the two time periods. The Blitz, rationing and other wartime events fill the 1940 section and the differences between London then and London now are fairly distinct. However, in most other aspects, this is not as true. The language is the most noticeable aspect, as there’s very little to suggest a time lapse of more than 6 decades, in either the way the characters speak or the language used to describe events.
The detectives themselves seem untouched by time, too. In the 1940s, Bryant seems older than his years yet in 2003, May seems younger than he should be. The 60-year gap between the two periods seems to have affected the city more than it has the detectives. Whilst this does help the story flow a little better and means the different time frames doesn’t affect the story too much, it does jar a little as you’re aware that most 80 year olds wouldn’t be doing the kind of thing that May does.
Not that what May does is really all that impressive. Despite the danger inherent in the time period and a slightly dark nature of the setting and the story, it barely raises above a standard murder mystery. Bryant’s deductive side makes him feel a little like an updated Sherlock Holmes, taking the investigation off at apparent tangents, most of which he keeps to himself, with May as his Dr Watson, doing most of the legwork.
There’s also little of one of Fowler’s other trademark, his love of London’s history. Although the recollections of how London and Londoners may have reacted during the Blitz may be accurate, there’s nothing about London’s history outside this period, which has long been something of a speciality and an interest of Fowler’s.
The mystery itself isn’t terribly gripping, which comes as a surprise with Fowler. He’s become a master of urban horror, writing situations that are realistic enough to believe they could happen to you, but dark enough that you know you’d rather they didn’t. There’s little of that here, as the very setting is quite fantastical and, despite some gothic touches, not as dark as his earlier work.
It’s also slower paced than much of his earlier novels, particularly the likes of “Spanky” and “Disturbia”. Although things do tend to move along fairly well, they don’t flow particularly well and the pace doesn’t really get moving at any real pace. This only adds to the mundane nature of the investigation. It’s not exactly predictable, but it’s not really anything special, and you’re unlikely to be hugely surprised or moved when the finale is reached, as there’s not been enough previously to grab your interest or make you care about what happens.
Given that the last Fowler I read, “Breathe”, disappointed me due to the lack of pages but entranced me with the story, this is more of a disappointment. It’s a decent sized book for the money, but isn’t nearly as enjoyable to read. It seems that Fowler can be inspired by all the nasty things that can happen in London, but that tidying up afterwards isn’t something of great interest to him.
Fowler is a great writer and deserves more fans that he seems to have. However, its novels like “Spanky” and “Soho Black” that have gained him the good reputation he has. “Full Dark House”, whilst not a bad novel, isn’t going to enhance his name or increase his fan base. It’s great to see Bryant and May getting a showing as lead characters, but the result has been fairly boring by Fowler’s standards. It’s really only one for Fowler fans and isn’t going to appeal to anyone else, being lacklustre even by Fowler’s standards and lacking any real appeal as a crime thriller for those who are new to his work. For anyone who has never read his books, I’d thoroughly recommend Fowler, but not this one.
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