It goes against the grain to pick a book from the middle of a series for me. I’ve read all 30-something Discworld books in order, I tackled Fleming’s Bond series chronologically; basically, I like to follow the development of a series from the beginning, logically. But with Bryant & May On the Loose I was plunged some seven books in to a series for which the next book – Bryant & May Off the Rails – has already been released.
And that was just fine, as it turned out. References to earlier plot lines were swiftly explained without too much exposition for the latecomer, but with enough to feel quickly acquainted with the battery of faintly bizarre characters. The Bryant and May series centres on the eponymous detectives who make up the core of the Peculiar Crimes Unit.
Something of a law unto themselves and perpetually falling foul of the Met because of it, the PCU brings together a motley but talented crew of detectives and forensic types who investigate the kinds of crimes the other departments can’t solve. In this book, there isn’t even supposed to be a PCU; they’ve been officially suspended, pending investigation which seems to be inevitably heading towards formal disbanding. Just as it seems there’s nothing left for the team but to find new jobs (and, in Bryant’s case, shuffle inexporably towards a lonely death from old age and lack of stimulation), a headless corpse turns up which leads them into a race against time to solve a murder, prevent chaos striking a huge development project and possibly even save their careers.
Of Bryant and May it is Bryant, an eccentric, highly intelligent officer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of London and it’s convoluted history, that is the more striking. May is his sensible fall guy, against whom he bounces his ideas and who keeps him on the path of what passes for sanity in Bryant’s world. The rest of the team is a mixture of sensible, likeable types – the almost disappointingly realistic ones – and the slightly odd; Jack Renfield, for example, who’s trying to simultaneously shake off a reputation for being widely disliked and the Dracula jokes that follow his name about.
The strongest highlights of Bryant & May On the Loose are the fascinating points of London history and the clever pacing. Although you’re essentially given plenty of the detail that’s usually revealed at the end from the start, the intricately wound plot leaves plenty of room for guessing – and, indeed, second-guessing – and leaves just enough unsaid to keep the reader turning pages eagerly. Fowler is also far too skilled to suffer from the excessive exposition problem that occasionally surfaces in mysteries based on a long-buried secret; he works the historical detail into the plot in digestible chunks.
Although I’m not raving with excitement over the book, I couldn’t point out a specific criticism to level at it; a few things occasionally slightly grated(some uncomfortably unlikely dialogue, the odd overdose of eccentricity), but nothing that would stop me going on to read others in the series, which I now fully intend to do. All in all, it’s an enjoyably quirky, admirably pacy and interesting mystery, which is just fine by me.
Find out more about the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge. Please note that opinions are my own and unbiased; I am not required to give the books a positive review.