Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

“How am I supposed to feel? I’ve got an under-rehearsed cased that’s too panicked to concentrate on the score, a violinist who’s more used to playing in Leicester Square for a hatful of pennies, a musical director who fights with the director over every change in the arrangements, fifty-year old mechanical equipment that refuses to control several tons of lethal scenery, a replacement jasper who has never performed in the West End, a cleaning lady who’s trying to scrub blood out of the balcony seats, and now some kind of women’s temperance league if picketing the theatre. Stan and Mouse are spreading rumours about ghosts walking through walls. Benjamin got punched on the nose by a woman who says that we’re the spawn of Satan. I nearly broke my leg in the foyer after Elspeth’s tortoise pulled rhubarb leaves all over the floor. And you’re telling me we have an abduction on our hands.”

There’s a lot going on in this book, so I think I’ll start at the beginning.

Arthur Bryant and John May met in London in November 1940. Both young men were assigned to the PCU – the Peculiar Crimes Unit – to deal with the strangest of crimes and, though they were young and had little experience, they found themselves pretty much running the place while so many resources and so many men were caught up in the war.

The two detectives had very different approaches – Bryant was an impulsive creative thinker, while May was a steady methodical investigator – but they soon formed a solid, utterly believable working relationship.

Their first case together was a complex, colourful mystery. The death of the leading lady in rehearsals for a grand new production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. A production to lift the spirits of Londoners living through the Blitz. But now a dancer lies dead, trapped in an elevator, her feet severed. And there will be more deaths. Seemingly impossible deaths. Does a phantom haunt the theatre.

A fine mystery, two engaging detectives pursuing their own theories, a colourful cast, and as many twists and turns as you could want.

But the case is never solved, and sixty years later it still haunts Bryant and May, who are still working together at the PCU. Every evening they walk and talk together before Bryant returns to the office and May returns to his home. It is on one of those walks that Bryant mentions that he thinks he has uncovered new information about that unsolved crime, and later that very evening that a bomb destroys the building that housed the PCU. Arthur Bryant is missing, presumed dead.

John May does not believe that his old friend and colleague’s death happened by chance, and so he sets out to uncover what Bryant knew, and why he died …

The two stories are well written and told, and twisted together very nicely. Progress is slow, and this is a book that you need to give a fair bit of time, but there is more than enough to justify lingering.

There’s lovely characterisation of two men who have differences but have much in common too, and whose relationship seems to have evolved so naturally and believably over the sixty years that separate the two, linked storylines. Such a wonderful portrayal of a professional and personal relationship. And the supporting cast is pretty good too.

There’s the city too. I recognised the London that I left a few years ago, and wartime London came to life for me too.

And a wealth of knowledge holds everything together. The aircraft flying over wartime London. The workings of the theatre. A collection of film posters. the myths that underpin the theatre production. So much knowledge, so much detail. It could be heavy going, but for me it wasn’t. I had the sense that the author loved the things that he was writing about, loved sharing his knowledge and telling his story, and that quite possibly he could make any subject that took his fancy intriguing.

That’s what enthuses me as I look forward to the books still to come in the series. I’ll be happy to meet Messrs Bryant and May again, I’ll be happy to enjoy another story unfolding, and I’ll be really happy to discover what more knowledge Christopher Fowler has to share along the way.

11 responses

  1. I’ve noticed this series become increasingly popular at my library and I’ve wondered what it was like. It sounds fantastic!

    • There’s something away the way Christopher Fowler writes, his love of the things he writes about does shine through. And the city and the evocation of the period really make this one sing.

  2. Apart from the fact that it’s in the West End, that opening quote could have been written about every student production I ever directed! I’m not certain whether to say it brings back memories or that it brings back nightmares. Somewhere in the past I’ve encountered this series, but I can’t now remember whether it was just a recommendation or if I actually read the first one. I’ll be in the library later this morning so I must check it out and see what they’ve got. Thanks for the pointer.

    • Ah memories! The theatrical world in wartime that Christopher Fowler created was very vivid, and I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.

  3. I’ve seen a few good reviews of this book in the last few days and I’m starting to wish I’d chosen it myself for the Transworld Challenge. I think I’ll look for a copy anyway as it does sound great!

    • There were a lot of interesting books in the Transworld List, and you did pick an interesting trio, but this one is certainly worth looking out for too.

  4. An excellent review you really do the book justice. (blushes at my own review!) Though I still have not made my mind up whether I would want to read other books featuring them?

  5. Pingback: Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House (2003) « Follow the Thread

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