Published in Hardback by Doubleday on 26th March 2015. My thanks to the publisher, Sophie Christopher and Bookbridgr for sending me my review copy, and inviting me onto the blog tour.
Twelve Bryant & May Novels & Counting
Actually, that’s thirteen if you count my detective duo’s stunningly rendered graphic novel. Someone I hadn’t caught up with for a while said to me, ‘So, you’re still churning out those Bryant & May books are you?’
I pointed out that yes, mystery novels were one type of book I write, although there were many others. He said; ‘Then why do you bother with the crime stuff? They’re all the same, aren’t they?’
I explained that my stand-alone novels sold a fraction of the copies that my series sold because readers like to return to characters, and that no, I was very keen on constantly ringing the changes with the series, trying different genres within the mystery field, altering the lineup and even the style of writing.
Now the new Bryant & May mystery is appearing on shelves, and although I delivered my books for the rest of 2015 long ago I’ve yet to decide on the future fate of my detectives – do I dip back into the past to present missing cases, or move forward with a new spin-off project I’ve been quietly developing for a couple of years? Either way, I’ll have to choose this month and get stuck in. There are deadlines approaching.
Traditionally, authors who write more books featuring their detectives survive over ones who write fewer. However, Conan Doyle and R Austin Freeman post similar numbers – Sherlock Holmes starred in 56 stories and four novels, while Freeman’s terrific Dr Thorndyke appeared in 40 short stories and 22 novels. Agatha Christie used Hercule Poirot in 33 novels, while her contemporary Gladys Mitchell used her detective Mrs Bradley in 66 books. Dorothy L Sayers only wrote eleven Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and Robert Van Gulik wrote 25 Judge Dee novels, although as each of these contain several cases in the Chinese style do we count them as more? (There was a rather fun Judge Dee movie about four years ago, and a famous Granada TV series).
However, when it comes to totals Christie also wrote an additional 50 short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, so she sort of wins on volume (although I love the madder Ms Mitchell). Volume seems to be important as readers develop a loyalty, but it also creates its own problem – critics generally stop reviewing you after the first volume. I’ve been lucky in my US reviews as later volumes have garnered good reviews. But it’s tricky finding the balance between offering up familiarity and providing fresh surprises.
It’s not all about numbers, of course. Colin Dexter wrote surprisingly few Inspector Morse novels, but an exemplary TV series kept his character alive with fresh stories often created by respected playwrights, and despite the death of the superlative actor John Thaw, continued into both the future and the past with spin-off series. The Bryant & May books are slightly unusual in that they’re simultaneously pastiches and full of real London history, but they also contain quite a large cast of characters – what I term ‘the Springfield effect’ – all of whom I have to keep track of.
These factors, and the rather esoteric plotlines, have kept the books rather below the parapet of mainstream awareness – I can’t get stocked in WH Smith to save my life – but it may just result in the series being long-lived. Because although I’ve been forbidden by the publishers to tell you anything here, I can tell you that this is most definitely NOT the end.
Which was the first book (of any kind) to make a strong impression on you – and why?
The first book I remember reading was ‘Treasure Island’, but I had a fondness for exotic adventures like ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ and ‘Coral Island’, probably because I came from a South London backstreet where nobody had travelled further than Brighton. What stood out then – and still draws me – is the richly coloured ‘otherness’ of far-flung lands. It’s probably why I graduated to the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. The dense descriptions of the castle that defeated so many readers entranced me, rather like the detailed textures in Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
At what point did you discover that you had some facility with the written word?
Very early on. My essays were always returned with a high score – in strict inverse to my maths scores – and my teacher encouraged me to write. I started a home magazine and filled it with stories from about the age of ten. I was given a great piece of advice by a terrific teacher: ‘Nobody needs a good all-rounder – excel at something.’
Major influences then – and now?
First, storytellers - I discovered a chain of seedy South London second-hand book stores called the Popular Book Centres. They stamped their smudged triangular logo inside all their books, and made enough money from top-shelf smut to keep racks of yellowing paperbacks going for real readers. In this way, they were every bit as useful as public libraries. The great thing about the shop was that I could always find something rare and wonderful lurking in the racks, and as everything was 1/6d I could afford to take a chance on the dodgiest-looking books.
Alfred Hitchcock had put his name to a series of dog-eared anthologies that were wonderful assorted literary ragbags, and from these I started making informed decisions about the writing I enjoyed most. I made a list of favourite short stories:
‘The Cone’ – HG Wells
‘Leningen Versus The Ants’ – Carl Stephenson
‘Camera Obscura’ – Basil Copper
‘Evening Primrose’ – John Collier
‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ – Evelyn Waugh
‘The Fly’ – George Langelaan
The biggest single influence of any writer has been the ultimate ‘exotic’, JG Ballard, whose works I can virtually recite by heart. But Dickens had a huge impact because his writing contains everything you need to know, and I love the nasty home truths in Evelyn Waugh’s darkest books.
Was Roofworld (1988) your first completed novel? How was it received by publishers – then readers?
I had attempted two earlier novels, both of which I’ve locked in a drawer, never to be seen, so Roofworld was the first ‘proper’ novel. My publisher loved it, but could never decide where it fitted in the canon of fiction, or who I should be compared to. Then an American publication said ‘A Major new thriller writer takes his place halfway between JG Ballard and Stephen King’, so that decided things – for a while. The book didn’t sell well initially, but built by word of mouth. Readers said; ‘It’s made me look up and see London properly for the first time’, which is certainly a result. I still think it’s an original idea, but perhaps today I’d have developed the characters more.
Which normally comes first for you - an idea or theme, plot, place or characters. And why?
I have a habit of jumping over and between genres, and it confuses readers. I used to think like a traditional genre writer, coming up with what I felt was a killer plot and a good theme. I revised my thinking over time to aim for the creation of a good central character. The comedy writers Galton & Simpson taught me that you have nothing without character and tragedy. I’ve come across wonderful thriller plots that are horribly written and beautiful writing that goes nowhere – the trick is to marry elegance and surprise.
What factors, after three incidental appearances in previous novels, lead to the introduction in Full Dark House of Arthur Bryant and John May as major characters?
I think I’d realised by then that I was sufficiently interested in these odd old men to see what more they could do. I get annoyed when critics harp on about the perceived grittiness of police procedurals –most are as much a fictional construct as westerns. We never hear about real-life crime cases in which the killer continues to attack while under investigation, eventually threatening the detective’s own family. ‘Grittiness’ in crime is just detailing so, I reasoned, why couldn’t I use Golden Age detectives in a modern world? I’ve always felt that the secret is to ground stories is realistic characterisation and recognisable behaviour. And many of the most surprising elements in the books are taken from fact.
Also, most of my books operate from two points of view – with Bryant & May I was able to have this running dialogue between nonsense & sensibility, if you will. Bryant is bizarre and unpredictable, May is the ‘control’ part of any experiment.
At first sight, there appears to be some distance between the earlier ‘hybrid’ books featuring ‘horror, fantasy and science fiction’ and the later Bryant & May books. What new opportunities did the change offer you as a writer?
Contrary to popular belief, really good supernatural novels are very hard to write. I realised I was developing hybrid tales because publishers recalled my background in short stories of the fantastic, and I was trying to please them and not alienate my readership. Once I shed the supernatural elements, I was free to explore a wider range of themes, and deepen the characters. The dangerous thing was to introduce humour – critics like gravitas. You can get away with anything if you say it with a straight face. Look at Lee Child’s excellent Jack Reacher novels, which are a hairsbreadth from satire.
What were you trying to achieve with those early books in the series?
In the early days I set out to write a story in every different area of crime fiction. So ‘Full Dark House’ is an Agatha Christie origin story, ‘The Water Room’ is a John Dickson Carr locked room mystery, ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’ is a Robert Louis Stevenson romp, ‘White Corridor’ is a Sebastien Japrisot suspense novel and so on. Now I’m far more relaxed about my plots and themes. For ‘relaxed’, read ‘confident’.
Short stories have, I believe, always been important to you. What role do they play in your writing life?
They’re adventure playgrounds. You use them to try out all kinds of angles, and don’t have too far to fall if you fail. Only very occasionally do you get something wonderful. From a little under 200 stories I’m really proud of around 10.
What do you consider to be your strongest points as a writer?
It’s probably not for me to say. I think I balance a populist approach with something more obsessive, but this once again means I fall between demographic slots. I think visually and densely, but I’m horribly impatient. I hate prosaic scene-setting, weather descriptions and endless room decor, and given the choice I’d be far more experimental in my approach. My novel ‘Plastic’ is densely written, and a New York friend criticised me for making it too rich – an argument I find absurd. Not everything has to be lightweight. The author has many different tools for the job.
In what skill (as a writer) would you most like to improve?
I wish I could slow down and concentrate entirely on one book for two years again, as I did when I had a day job. There’s an emphasis on output and profile now that I think is unhealthy for the development of novels. I’m never happy with my descriptive passages, and when I read the prose of say, David Mitchell, Jim Shepard or Don DeLillo I feel like giving up. I think I lack elegance.
Any (printable) views on critics, particularly in the field of crime?
I’ve been very lucky with critics, and have (touch wood) had few bad reviews, but as a reviewer myself I know the demands placed on good critics to read and deliver at speed. As the FT crime reviewer I was reading (or at least scanning) around 20 books a month to select just two I’d read and then review. It was intensely time-consuming. I admire reviewers like Barry Forshaw and Suzie Feay, who are vocational about their work. I don’t think you should merely destroy the inept, as restaurant critics do; it’s lazy and too easy to be another AA Gill. Having said that, certain authors appear unassailable. Private Eye pointed out that out of twenty reviewers, I was the only one to criticise Stephen King. An author’s ubiquity should not make him critic-proof. But I made sure my argument was well-reasoned and not just snarky opinion.
What is your definition of writing Heaven? And writing Hell?
Heaven is the second draft, when you know you have the story locked and you can relax and have fun. Hell is the first draft when you realise the idea isn’t going to work out as you’d hoped.
How do you relax?
I travel a lot, to the most exotic places I can afford to reach – I’m infamous for getting into scrapes in far-off lands - and I watch a lot of European films. I occasionally see Hollywood movies, but less and less. I never watch television except for box-sets at Christmas. This year: ‘True Detective’. OMFG.
Favourite news media: old (print) or new (electronic)?
I’m an e-news hunter/gatherer, so I tap into a lot of ideas others miss – I know an alarming number of people who hate anything electronic, which is absurd, as the two formats are symbiotic – I often read a book first on Kindle, then buy a hard copy to keep, and there are a great many critical websites with better writing than you can ever find in magazines. Too many newspapers hire TV presenters and the talentless children of media-folk. But a Sunday print newspaper is sometimes nice with a pint. I don’t think the UK has sorted out its press subscription sites very well – the New York Times is still streets ahead of any UK online subscription.
What book(s) are you reading at the moment?
Thanks to an e-reader I usually have around 4 books on the go at once. At the moment I’m reading Graham Joyce’s ‘The Year Of The Ladybird’, Christopher Priest’s ‘The Adjacent’, Mohsin Hamid’s ‘How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia’, and ‘Vainglory’ by Ronald Firbank, a ‘missing’ novel which has gone straight to e-print.
Which new(ish) writer have you most enjoyed reading recently?
I love Warren Ellis’s forays into crime, and I’ve just discovered Jim Shepard, an amazing US short story writer who should be better known. I’m rather shocked that I’m not reading many new women writers – much of what I choose is from recommendations, and one growing problem is that the gender divide is being courted by publishers so that it’s assumed women only write for women. Thank God, then, for Hilary Mantel, and for crime writers like Val McDermid and Laura Wilson.
'Desert Island' films, plays and/or music?
Where to start? Comfort movies like ‘Hair’ and ‘Aliens’ and ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ (I explain the reason for that last one in my memoir ‘Paperboy’). I am also the only person in the world who loves Ken Russell’s ‘The Boy Friend’. Plays; Sondheim for wordplay, Charles Wood and Peter Barnes for muscularity of writing, but more recently ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, ‘Mathilda’ and ‘Jerusalem’. Music is insanely eclectic – I have a passion for film soundtracks that borders mental illness, but this morning I was playing Richard Strauss and German jazz funk band De-Phazz. I love minimalists like Michael Nyman and Wim Mertens. And hard house.
A favourite bookshop?
I love my two nearest shops, Foyles in St Pancras and Watermark in King’s Cross. And of course, Forbidden Planet – I’ve been shopping with them since they were just a market stall in Soho’s Berwick Street.
Are you in favour of the death penalty for murder?
Absolutely not. An eye for an eye is biblical law, not the mark of a civilised society.
Who or what makes you laugh?
I love very English language-play; Monty Python, Galton & Simpson, Joe Orton, Al Murray, Stewart Lee, Viz, PG Wodehouse, the Ealing Comedies, ‘The Thick Of It’, The Grand Budapest Hotel..
What depresses you most about contemporary Britain?
The gap between rich and poor, which keeps kids uneducated, and the lunacy of television which happily fills children’s heads with unrealistic dreams. People working at TV companies should ask themselves if they’re contributing anything to society instead of shrieking at each other over Soho House drinks. Every era gets the cons it deserves, and our children deserve something better than the Kardashians.
What excites you most about contemporary Britain?
I live in King’s Cross, possible the most polyglot place in the planet, and it’s thrilling just to walk through crowds. I have no truck with the Little England mentality and – from a purely aesthetic point of view – prefer the muezzin’s call to prayer more than church bells on a Sunday. I’ll get punched for saying that.
What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
Better eyesight and a faster reading speed. I’ve always been a slow reader, and have always suffered from eye-strain. In a way it’s probably what made me a writer – every Friday my mother had to take me to Moorfields Eye Hospital and as a treat we would visit a museum or bookshop afterwards.
Which non-crime book would you most like to have written?
Tricky one – I think ‘Titus Groan’, the first part of Mervyn Peake’s trilogy, or Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. I may change my mind when Hilary Mantel finishes her trilogy!
Which crime novel would you most like to have written? And why?
I regard ‘All The President’s Men’ as the most brilliant high-stakes crime novel ever written, even though it’s true. It has real heroes and villains. The modern novel would be AD Miller’s ‘Snowdrops’. The former is perfectly balanced reporting in a form as enthralling as any fiction, the latter achieves something crime writers can only strive for – successfully questioning what the nature and price of a crime might be. Both are game changers.
Which, of your own work to date, is the book which you consider came off best?
Although I wasn’t happy with it at the time (and neither were my publishers, who were confused by my genre-straddling plot) I’d have to say ‘Calabash’, the story of a boy with too much imagination. It’s half-set in a 1970s British seaside town and half in ancient Persia. I still love certain passages in it – it has never been reprinted, sadly.
I have to make an admission here, I had never heard of Christopher Fowler or this wonderful series of books. I am so glad that they have now been brought to my attention.
The ageing detectives of Bryant and May are wonderfully charming and even amusing in their old style of doing things. I most definitely want to hear more about what they have been up to and will be reading the previous books in the series. I don't feel that there is a need to read the books in order though.
I have to admit to it taking me a couple of chapters to settle into the story and not being used to the quirkiness, I wondered what was going on. Once I had settled into it, it was like meeting up with old friends.
The author managed to cause my imagination to go mad, envisaging London on fire as he describes, a great deal of passion for London is present and this comes across to the reader. I found some of it to be a bit tongue in cheek but that added to the overall sense of the story.
What I love most about this book is the fact that it has the feel of an old style detective story but it somehow manages to blend with the new, this really, really works to create an amazing cast of characters that are truly unforgettable. Although my soft spot is for the wonderful Arthur Bryant, whose character was warm, mischievous and incredibly touching.
If you believe me, or even if you don't read this because I defy you not to be absorbed on the streets of London, as I was.
About the Author:
Christopher Fowler is a Londoner born (in Greenwich) and bred. For many years he jointly owned and ran one of the UK's top film marketing companies.
He is the author of many novels and short story collections, from the urban unease of cult fictions such as Roofworld and Spanky, the horror-pastiche of Hell Train to the much-praised and award-winning Bryant and May series of detective novels - and his two critically acclaimed autobiographies, Paperboy and Film Freak.
He lives in King's Cross.
Follow Christopher Fowler on Twitter - @Peculiar