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.

Book Awards: A Challenge Completed

I was delighted this morning when I discovered that Paperboy by Christopher Fowler had won the inaugral Green Carnation Prize.

It’s a lovely book more than worthy of prizes and attention.

And it brought me up to the total of ten books read and written about that I needed to complete the Book Awards IV Reading Challenge.

I’ve been rather lackadaisical in my approach to reading challenges this year. Signing up and making book lists was lovely, but I’ve read the books that called and they weren’t always the books on the lists or books that fitted the challenges I’d signed up for.

I’ll wind up a few more before the year ends, but a few I’m afraid have fallen by the wayside. I’m not going to name names, I’m just going to say that I mean no disrespect to the hosts and that I do appreciate all of the thought and hard work that they put in.

But back to the one I have finished – here are the books:

  1.  The Tin-kin by Eleanor Thom (Saltire First Novel Award) 
  2.  The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips (Barnes & Noble Discover Prize)
  3. Paperboy by Christopher Fowler (Green Carnation)
  4. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen (SIBA Book Award)
  5. Haweswater by Sarah Hall (Commonwealth Writers’ Award)
  6. Echoes From The Dead by Johan Theorin (CWA New Blood Dagger)
  7. After The Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld (John Llewelyn Rhys Prize)
  8. I Coriander by Sally Gardner (Nestlé Smarties Book Award)
  9. The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini (Orange Award for New Writers)
  10. Just Like Tomorrow by Faïza Guène (Scott Moncrieff Prize)

Some I picked from prize lists, some I read and they just happened to have awards and, maybe best of all, two I read and loved and then they won awards.

And now I’m off to read my final book for another challenge …

Paperboy by Christopher Fowler

I have to confess that I have never read any of Christopher Fowler’s fiction. His early books didn’t appeal; his Bryant & May series sounds wonderful, but I haven’t quite got to it yet. So when I saw the man’s name on the literary fiction bookshelf in the library, I picked the book up out of general curiosity, just to see what it was about. I didn’t mean to borrow it, but as I scanned the early pages a few simple sentences caught my eye.

“My bedroom was filled with reading material: books salvaged from dustbins, books borrowed from friends, books with missing pages, books found in the street, abandoned, unreadable, torn, scribbled on, unloved, unwanted and dismissed. My bedroom was the Battersea Dogs Home of books.”

With that I stopped thinking of Christopher Fowler as a to be read author and started thinking of him as a fellow book lover. The book came home, and I’m very glad that it did.

At the heart of Paperboy is a boy growing up in a London suburb in the fifties and sixties. It’s not a world I remember, but the book brings it life beautifully.

And then there’s the family. Dysfunctional is probably the word, though it doesn’t suit the period. His mother struggles to hold the family together, while his father was clearly troubled and difficult to live with.   

And so young Christopher finds an escape route courtesy of the written word. First comics, then an assortment of books, until he discovers the boundless possibilities of public libraries.

His father will never understand Christopher, but fortunately his mother does, and gently encourages his reading and writing aspirations.

It’s a simple story, in many ways an unremarkable story, and yet it’s a story that comes completely to life because it is so perfectly observed and so packed with wonderful details. And all considered with warmth, wit, intelligence and a distinctive point of view.

I’d love to share every detail but I can’t , so let’s pick a few pages at random:

  • The futility of exam questions.
  • His mother’s list of favourite authors.
  • The joy of a new comic and a bar of chocolate.
  • The arrival of Doctor Who.
  • Reasons why the era of swinging London began in 1960.
  • Caravan holidays.
  • The gap between British and Hollywood cinema.

Yes, all of the details that illuminated a young life are here.

This is a book that you’ll want to read from cover to cover, but it’s also a book you can dip into and enjoy a few pages at a time

I’m very sorry that I shall have to give this one back to the library.

This week end I shall be ….

… fairly quiet, because it’s been a difficult week and I need to catch up with myself.

I’ll be trying to bring down the size of my library pile. I have three library books in progress.

Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor has me pretty much speechless and stunned.

Paperboy by Christopher Fowler is a lovely memoir of a bookish child, growing up in London in the sixties. Wonderful wit and lovely details.

I’m only one chapter into The Wives of Henry Oades by Joanna Moran, but I’m already engaged by some wonderful characters and intriguing possibilities.

And then there’s knitting. Sedgemoor has a back, a left front and half a right front. So I want to press on and finish. Just half a front, two short sleeves on the collar left to do!

I have my next garment project lined up – both yarn and patter to hand – but I’m not allowed to touch it until Sedgemoor is complete.

Fyberspates yarn, a simple shape, and added interest from a cable borrowed from Elsebeth Lavold …

And then there are three intriguing older books that I picked up in my other library this afternoon.

No, I didn’t really need any more books, but I can’t get there again until the weekend after Easter and I just couldn’t leave that ticket empty.

The big blue one is An Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall by Mrs Craik, a wonderful Victorian travelogue.

The little green one is A Waif’s Tale by “Emma Smith”. Not the Persephone author, this is an earlier book. The life of a woman who survives a harsh upbringing to live a remarkable life.

These will be my last Cornish books for a while. Too many other things are calling right now.

And finally there’s Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal – an account of the first tour of Switzerland offered by Thomas Cook in 1863.

One day I’ll get back to my own books, but probably not this weekend!

But of course it won’t all be indoor pursuits. Briar loves a beach and low tide this weekend coincides with her walk times.

This is where she sits by the door when she wants to remind me that it’s time to go.

The plan is Marazion on Saturday and Godrevy on Sunday – keep your fingers crossed for dry weather for us please!

I have to indulge her this weekend, because she is barred from a lot of beaches after easter until the autumn. How do I explain to a border terrier that she isn’t allowed on the scruffy, pebble-covered town beach that she can see from the house?

Library Loot

Lots of books this week. You see, in Cornwall you can use your ticket in any library in the county. So when I have a little time in another town I always try to have a look around that library, and inevitably bring a few books home. So my first three books come from my usual libraries, and the second three come from another. It sounds like a lot of books, but believe me I could have brought home many more. I was actually quite restrained!

And here are the books:

The Chapel at the End of the World by Kirsten McKenzie

“Emilio and Rosa are childhood sweethearts, engaged to be married. But it is 1942 and the war has taken Emilio far from Italy, to a tiny Orkney island where he is a POW. Rosa must wait for him to return and help her mother run the family hotel on the shores of Lake Como, in Italy. Feeling increasingly frustrated with his situation, Emilio is inspired by the idea of building a chapel on the barren island. The prisoners band together to create an extraordinary building out of little more than salvaged odds and ends and homemade paints. Whilst Emilio’s chapel will remain long after the POW camp has been left to the sheep, will his love for Rosa survive the hardships of war and separation? For Rosa is no longer the girl that he left behind. She is being drawn further into the Italian resistance movement and closer to danger, as friendships and allegiances are ever complicated by the war. Human perseverance and resilience are at the heart of this strong debut and the small Italian chapel remains, as it does in reality on the island of Lamb’s Holm, as a symbol of these qualities.”

This has been on my wishlist for a while, and I have to say it looks wonderful.

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L Sayers

“The bed was broken and tilted grotesquely sideways. Harrison was sprawled over in a huddle of soiled blankets. His mouth was twisted …Harrison had been an expert on deadly mushrooms. How was it then that he had eaten a large quantity of death-dealing muscarine? Was it an accident? Suicide? Or murder? The documents in the case seemed to be a simple collection of love notes and letters home. But they concealed a clue to the brilliant murderer who baffled the best minds in London.”

I blame P D James. She mentioned it in Talking About Detective Fiction. I hadn’t come across it before, but I was intrigued by the concept of a mystery by DLS in letters. It was in the library catalogue, so I waited and this week it appeared.

This is How by M J Hyland

“Patrick is a loner. An intelligent but disturbed young man struggling to find his place in the world. He ventures out on his own and as he begins to find happiness commits an act of violence that sends his life horribly and irreversibly out of control. But should a person’s life be judged by a single bad act? This is How is a compelling and macabre journey into the dark side of human existence and a powerful meditation on the nature of guilt and redemption.”

This is a little outside my comfort zone, but I like to try something different from time to time. This one is on the Orange Prize longlist – which suggests a certain quality – and there was a copy on the shelf, so I brought it home to try.

The Songwriter by Beatrice Colin

New York, 1916. Monroe Simonov, a song-plugger from Brooklyn, is in love with a Ziegfeld Follies dancer who has left him for California. Inez Kennedy, a fashion model in a department store, has just one season remaining to find a wealthy husband before she must return to the Midwest. Ana Denisova, a glamorous political exile, gives lectures and writes letters while she waits for the Russian people to overthrow their Tsar. Then America joins the war, jazz sweeps the city’s dance floors, the old order is swept away by newly minted millionaires and the entire nation is gripped by the Red Scare. Although the world is changing faster than they could ever have imagined, Monroe, Inez and Ana discover that they are still subject to the tyranny of the heart. In this richly atmospheric and deftly plotted novel, the paths of these three central figures cross and re-cross, leaving a trail of passion, infidelity and betrayal, and hurtle towards an explosive climax.”

I have still to read Lily Aphrodite. I’m sure I like it and I own a copy but it’s suffering from “own books pushed to one side because library books have to be returned” syndrome. So it made sense to borrow this one, which I’m sure will inspire me to pick up the earlier book!

Paperboy by Christopher Fowler

“Christopher Fowler’s memoir captures life in suburban London as it has rarely been seen: through the eyes of a lonely boy who spends his days between the library and the cinema, devouring novels, comics, cereal packets – anything that might reveal a story. Caught between an ever-sensible but exhausted mother and a DIY-obsessed father fighting his own demons, Christopher takes refuge in words. His parents try to understand their son’s peculiar obsessions, but fast lose patience with him – and each other. The war of nerves escalates to include every member of the Fowler family, and something has to give, but does it mean that a boy must always give up his dreams for the tough lessons of real life? Beautifully written, this rich and astute evocation of a time and a place recalls a childhood at once entertainingly eccentric and endearingly ordinary.”

I’ve never read any of Christopher Fowler’s fiction – though the Bryant & May novels have been recommended – but I picked this up and I saw some lovely passages about books, so I just had to bring it home. 

The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge by Patricia Duncker

“It was New Year’s Day, 2000. Hunters on their way home through a forest in the Jura stumble upon a half-circle of dead bodies lying in the freshly fallen snow. A nearby holiday chalet contains the debris of a seemingly ordinary Christmas: champagne, decorations, presents for the dead children. The hunters are questioned and sent away. As they descend the mountain, a large dark car rises past them in the gloom. The woman within barely acknowledges their presence. The Judge, Dominique Carpentier, is in charge of the investigation. Commissaire Andre Schweigen is waiting for her. They have encountered this suicide sect before. In the chalet they find a strange leather-bound book, written in mysterious code, containing maps of the stars. The book of “The Faith” leads them to the Composer, Friedrich Grosz, who is connected to every one of the dead. Surely he must be implicated in “The Faith”? And so the pursuit begins. Carpentier, Schweigen and the Judge’s idiosyncratic assistant Gaelle, are drawn into a world of complex family ties, ancient cosmic beliefs and seductive, disturbing music. Carpentier, known as the sect hunter, prides herself on her ability to expose frauds and charlatans. She also likes to win. Has she met her match in the Composer?”

I’ve read three of Patricia Duncker’s books. Two I liked and admired and one – James Miranda Barry – I absolutely loved. So when I saw this, shiny and new, I really had to pick it up.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.

Library Loot


Library Loot is a weekly event hosted by Eva and Alessandra to share the library books we find each week.

I haven’t been in the library much this week because my ticket is nearly full and I need to catch up on my reading arrears. But two reservations arrived and I spotted two more that I couldn’t resist on the shelves.

So here’s my quartet for this week:


True Murder by Yaba Badoe

“Eleven year old Ajuba has been abandoned at a Devon boarding school by her Ghanaian father. Haunted by the circumstances of her mother’s breakdown and the ghosts of the life she left behind in Ghana, she falls under the spell of new girl Polly Venus and her chaotic, glamorous family. But all is not what it might seem in the Venus household and Ajuba struggles to make sense of things as they tear each other apart in front of her. One day the girls find what they think are a dead kittens wrapped up in an old coat in the attic of the Venus’ manor house…the bones turn out to be those of a dead baby.Obsessed with the detectives of the American magazine serial “True Murder”, the girls set out to find out what happened to the baby. As the summer draws to a close, three tragedies conflate, with catastrophic results.”


The Paris Enigma by Pablo de Santis

“In late nineteenth century Europe, Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of London and the city of Paris marvels at a new spectacle: the Eiffel Tower. As visitors are drawn to glimpse the centrepiece in an exhibition of wonderful scientific creation, another momentous gathering is taking place in the city. Twelve of the world’s greatest sleuths have gathered to dicuss their most famous cases and debate the nature of mystery. When one of them is found viciously murdered, however, the symposium becomes an elite task force dedicated to solving the outrage. For a young apprentice detective, Sigmund Salvatorio, this is the chance to realize a dream of working with some of the finest criminologists to ever practice. But as, one by one, members of the committee fall prey to the mysterious killer, the dream becomes a shocking nightmare!”


Madresfield by Jane Mulvagh

“Madresfield Court is an arrestingly romantic stately home in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. It has been continuously owned and lived in by the same family, the Lygons, back to the time of the Domesday Book, and, unusually, remains in the family’s hands to this day. Inside, it is a very private, unmistakably English, manor house; a lived-in family home where the bejewelled sits next to the threadbare. The house and the family were the real inspiration for “Brideshead Revisited”: Evelyn Waugh was a regular visitor, and based his story of the doomed Marchmain family on the Lygons.Never before open to the public, the doors of Madresfield have now swung open to allow Jane Mulvagh to explore its treasures and secrets. And so the rich, dramatic history of one landed family unfolds in parallel with the history of England itself over a millennium, from the Lygon who conspired to overthrow Queen Mary in the Dudley plot; through the tale of the disputed legacy that inspired Dickens’ “Bleak House”; to the secret love behind Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”; and the story of the scandal of Lord Beauchamp, the disgraced 7th Earl.”


Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

“The story opens with a member of one of London’s most unusual police units being blown up in his office. He is John May, partner to Arthur Bryant, who now starts to investigate his death. The search takes Bryant back to the time of their first meeting in 1940. London is struggling to survive the Blitz when a beautiful dancer is found without her feet. Bryant and May’s investigation uncovers a weird gothic mystery, involving a killer who appears to be faceless. In the present day, May speculates whether that old adversary might be the killer. He needs to solve a riddle that began more than 50 years earlier.”

So what do I read first?

And what did you find in the library this week?