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When this book, the seventh in the Bryant and May series, opens, the Peculiar Crimes Unit, home to the detective duo of Arthur Bryant and John May and the other police who comprised it, has been shut down and its members placed on suspension. They cope with this in different ways, but much the hardest hit is Bryant himself who lapses into a state of lethargy and melancholia. Even the news that, quite by chance, one member of the Unit happened to be involved in the discovery of a headless corpse stuffed in a refrigerator fails to rouse him; on the other hand the seemingly less interesting revelation that a man dressed as a stag has, again by complete chance, been involved in a scuffle with another member of the Unit does get his attention, and he heads into an investigation with renewed vigour. By pulling some strings Bryant and May manage to win for the Unit a week in which to find out the truth about both the stag-man and the corpse who jointly threaten to destabilise an enormous building project which is taking place at King's Cross. The unit is to have no access to any police facilities however, so the difficult investigation, soon complicated by the discovery of another headless corpse, has to rely on old-fashioned methods - although in the case of Bryant in particular those methods are anything but orthodox.
Approaching a series as different as the Bryant and May one poses considerable problems as readers of the review will either be those familiar to it, and will be looking for a comparative review, or new to it, and will be wanting some indication as to what makes it so different, what kind of book it is. As I fall into the latter category I can only provide the latter approach, and proceed under the assumption that ON THE LOOSE is not markedly different in terms of tone and style from the proceeding six entries in the series. What then are the most distinctive features of this book? In the first place the dominant motif is that of place; and specifically London. Now place is certainly an important element for many mystery writers (just as it is wholly unimportant to others) from Doyle onwards (Holmes's London is almost as much of a character as the detective himself). However it is fairly rare for someone to put quite as much detailed emphasis on place as Fowler does here; clearly an immense amount of research has gone into the book. A peculiar twist is given to his writing about place in that it is imbued with terrific historical sense; London carries the imprint of its past in its present and this is interwoven into the plot and narrative.
Secondly. this is not a mystery in the realist mode. The Peculiar Crimes Unit in itself is clearly a fantastic invention, in both senses of the word. There is more than a touch of woo-woo, with the presence of a white witch who assists Bryant with his investigations. And this unreality connects into the primacy of place which at times assumes an almost mystical hue. But Fowler never tips over into surrealism in the manner of Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth books; the reader is always pulled back to reality. In particular all of the characters, including even the aforementioned white witch, are grounded in reality - memorable certainly in some cases, but not unreal. So Fowler walks a fine line where reality is concerned - and how much the reader enjoys this will contribute in part to one's reaction to the book.
I think that these are the dominant elements which contribute to the very distinctive character of the series. In terms of other writers, and I in no way intend to imply that Fowler is in any way derivative, the disparate couple I was reminded of were Margery Allingham and Michael Moorcock. Both of these connections are primarily to do with the question of place; Allingham in TIGER IN THE SMOKE providing the great Golden Age London mystery and Moorcock's distorted London settings in the Jerry Cornelius books. But there are further connections: TIGER IN THE SMOKE also provides a villain who in some ways is reminiscent of the villain in ON THE LOOSE; Moorcock provides another model of the blending of the real and surreal - though his emphasis is far more on the latter than Fowler.
Having tried to isolate and compare the distinctive elements of the series it is very important to emphasise that this does not mean that Fowler neglects other essential elements of the mystery . In the first place plot. ON THE LOOSE has an above average but certainly not stunning plot; the reader is generally one step ahead of the detectives because we are privileged with information that they are not. However the pace is maintained with admirable narrative skill. As far as character is concerned Bryant himself is of course a memorable and admirable creation who is quite capable of carrying the book (May, here at least, is really just a sidekick). This cannot be said of the other police characters who are not especially memorable though enjoyable enough. The same applies to other characters who are largely two-dimensional, but then psychological depth and realism would be quite out-of-place for the blend of unreality at which Fowler aims. He does however manage to get in considerable amounts of interesting sociological observation under his place and history writing. The prose is admirable throughout and perfectly suited to the style.
In attempting to reach a judgement on the book I would say that is unquestionably a good, interesting and well-written mystery. I think that whether one becomes a series aficionado will depend to a large degree to one's attitude to the two distinctive features - the sense of place and the unreality - which I have commented on earlier. Personally I am somewhat undecided as I very much like the former, but was at times, especially when the book wandered too far into woo-woo for my taste, unconvinced by the latter. Overall however I think I certainly would want to go back and read earlier entries and I would say of this, as of all distinctive series and writers, that is very well worth giving it a try because there is always the possibility that you will fall in love. And the very fact of its distinctiveness and originality is in itself a high commendation.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, November 2009
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