I’ve always reckoned that Arthur Bryant and John May are Golden Age detectives who’ve been left behind in the modern world. By now quite a few readers know that they head the Peculiar Crimes Unit, London’s oldest specialist police team, a division founded during WWII to investigate cases that could cause national scandal or public unrest. (I got the idea because my scientist father worked in something very similar.)
The latest volume, ‘Hall of Mirrors’, is the 16th featuring my senior detectives. This one is set in swinging London, when the detectives were young and energetic - they’re always playing silly word games, which I had great fun constructing - and are tackling a proper country house murder.
Except that this being a Bryant & May novel, it’s neither a traditional Christie-esque take, nor a postmodern pastiche. It’s a fair-play murder mystery with a little something to say about the time’s social politics, set at the end of the country house era, as lords die off and hippy squatters move in. The grand homes of England had become insolvent and their owners were desperate to offload them. They vanished at a phenomenal rate; some 1,200 were torn down. By the 1960s the remainder were in their death throes.
They say if you can remember the sixties you weren't there. I wasn't. By which I mean I was at school, buried in history books, some of which had last been taken out in 1873. I didn't get taken out until 1973. By which time the swinging sixties had ceased to swing and were left dangling, as Mr Edward Heath, the bachelor yachtsman, took the helm and ran the SS Britannia aground. The idealistic dreams of the sixties were abandoned.
So of course I wanted to write about it, and drop my detectives into that world. Bryant is already unable to adjust to the new swinging era, while May fits into it perfectly and loves every minute.
I have writer friends who are on their third or fourth book in a crime series and worry about running out of things to make their detectives do. I never seem to hit that problem because there are so many types of crime novel, and I use the series to explore all the different sub-genres – so in a way I’m not writing a series but inserting familiar characters into a set of crime novels.
The trick with a whodunnit-inspired tale is to avoid the boredom that leaves us stranded on say, a train while a detective interviews every suspect in clockwork rotation before announcing the killer. The answer, I came to realise, is not to trick out the tale with chases but to make the characters enjoyable to be with and very much of the era. This latest volumes turned out to be the most fun I’ve had yet.
When you read a murder mystery, do you read it to find out who did it, or because you like the main character? I don’t usually care very much who the murderer was. I can name only three of Agatha Christie’s villains but I know exactly what Poirot and Miss Marple are like. Detectives always need to have something memorable about themselves. Sherlock Holmes has his deductive powers, Miss Marple listened to village gossip. Arthur Bryant uses his age to get away with being extremely blunt, erratic and annoying. So I thought it would be interesting to see him as a young man, where the seeds of later life are already sprouting.
I’ve also started writing under a pseudonym, LK Fox, so that I can produce some darker crime novels. I read a lot of murder mysteries, old and new, and it’s a thrill when a real knockout comes along, like ‘The Dry’, ‘Dodgers’ or ‘Snowdrops’. They make me realise there’s so much more to aspire to in the crime genre. I won’t dumb down and I don’t care for procedural crime because it’s done so well on TV. I admire the outrageous styling of Lee Child, the atmospheric prose of Ann Cleeves and the balls-out gutsiness of Val McDermid, so I know where I stand regarding influences and tastes. The Bryant & May novels are meant to be an acquired pleasure for real readers – they’re filled with puzzles, hidden jokes and arcane bits of history. Why shouldn’t they be fun? It’s this sense of mischief that made ‘Hall of Mirrors’ such a joy to write.
Bryant & May - Hall of Mirrors by Christopher Fowler (Published by Transworld Publishers)
The year is 1969 and ten guests are about to enjoy a country house weekend at Tavistock Hall. But one amongst them is harbouring thoughts of murder. . . The guests also include the young detectives Arthur Bryant and John May - undercover, in disguise and tasked with protecting Monty Hatton-Jones, a whistle-blower turning Queen's evidence in a massive bribery trial. Luckily, they've got a decent chap on the inside who can help them - the one-armed Brigadier, Nigel `Fruity' Metcalf. The scene is set for what could be the perfect country house murder mystery, except that this particular get-together is nothing like a Golden Age classic. For the good times are, it seems, coming to an end. The house's owner - a penniless, dope-smoking aristocrat - is intent on selling the estate (complete with its own hippy encampment) to a secretive millionaire but the weekend has only just started when the millionaire goes missing and murder is on the cards. But army manoeuvres have closed the only access road and without a forensic examiner, Bryant and May can't solve the case. It's when a falling gargoyle fells another guest that the two incognito detectives decide to place their future reputations on the line. And in the process discover that in Swinging Britain nothing is quite what it seems...