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by Christopher Fowler
Bantam, December 2013
368 pages
ISBN: 0345528654

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

If, like me, you've been following the adventures of Bryant & May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit from the beginning, some ten years ago, you will remember that John May met Arthur Bryant in London during the Blitz. May was, if I am not mistaken, nineteen at the time, Bryant somewhat older. So in this, book ten of the series, May must be a bit over ninety and his venerable partner around ninety-five. Nevertheless, they are still active policemen, still pursing the kind of crime that falls within their remit - crimes bizarre enough to cause national scandal or public unrest. Certainly, Bryant is showing increasing signs of decrepitude, but May is as impeccably turned out as ever. How can this be?

Simple, really. The pair inhabit a contemporary London but one in which time is not exclusively present tense. The city is built over layers of a deep, sometimes magical, past that bubbles up to the surface unexpectedly to shape events. Bryant is particularly responsive to these upsurges, May more dubious. But on the evidence of the present volume, it would appear that it is becoming increasingly difficult for London's deep past to make itself felt, even to Bryant. Too much building on old sites, perhaps, too many soaring towers obscuring the London that was.

THE INVISIBLE CODE opens with a pair of children playing a rather sinister game - "Witch Hunter" - which requires them to identify any witches they come across and then kill them, all in accordance with the rules of an elaborate and, it turns out, actual computer game. They are young children and they don't really kill; still, a target of theirs does drop dead in St Bride's Church immediately after being tagged by the pair. The cause of her death is not immediately apparent.

Though this would seem to be exactly the sort of thing that Peculiar Crimes is intended to deal with, St Bride's is within the City of London and it is to that police force that the case goes. Bryant and May are, however, called in to investigate an even more intriguing mystery - what is making the young wife of a senior civil servant suddenly act bizarrely? She is, and this is the intriguing bit, the wife of their old enemy, Oskar Kasavian, head of Home Security, and in the past a dedicated foe of the Peculiar Crimes Unit and all its doings. Kasavian is worried both about her and his career (it's not always sure which concern is uppermost) but whichever it might be, he is prepared to pay a significant price to engage Bryant and May. In brief, he is prepared to call off all interference with Peculiar Crimes, both from his office and from the Met.

Part One of the novel takes the form of a comparatively straightforward police investigation of the case, reminding the reader that Bryant and May, no matter how unusual in their methods, are genuine policemen. The second half, "The Chase," involving "witchcraft, magic, secret codes, and an ancient London myth," is something else again - twisty, intriguing, suspenseful, and reverberating with old lore and ancient evil. It is here that Fowler demonstrates his particular specialty, treading that delicate line between the cold light of reason and mystical claptrap. In the stunning and very satisfying conclusion, it is left to Bryant, as usual, to bridge that divide and reveal what, in the light of disclosure, should have been obvious from the first.

But Fowler is not content to leave it at that. The final paragraph of the novel promises more, and darker, things to come. It would be perhaps rather chilling except it carries with it the promise that there is at least one more outing in store for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, that band of outsiders whose relentless curiosity means that they can find fellowship only with one another. Bryant and May have been threatened with extinction frequently in the past. It's comforting to know that they have yet to be extinguished.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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