WILD CHAMBER by CHRISTOPHER FOWLER
When a woman is found strangled in one of those little gated parks within a square of houses, unique to London, the Metropolitan Police’s Peculiar Crimes Unit swings into action. Led – and sometimes misled – by its two extremely senior detectives, John Bryant and Arthur May, the other members of the PCU realise that they are faced with an outdoor version of the crime fiction staple – the locked room mystery.
Other murders follow, and each has been committed in one of the parks and gardens – the Wild Chambers – which are scattered throughout central London. Are the gardens linked, like some erratically plotted ley line? Why are the murders connected to a tragic freak accident in a road tunnel near London Bridge? Why are the murder sites speckled with tiny balls of lead?
For Arthur Bryant – and his creator – London’s past is like a great sleeping creature buried beneath the layers of the city’s history. Sometimes it stirs in its slumber, and the vibrations are felt far above, by those who wish to feel. On other occasions, it sighs, and its breath stirs the leaves in the trees of memory, but only people like Bryant, for whom the present is just a footnote in the chapter of life, can hear the rustling.
Bryant’s unique relationship with London’s vibrant and violent past is described thus:
“London’s lost characters were to him close companions, from the bodysnatchers of Blenheim Street to the running footman of Mayfair and the rat man of Tottenham Court Road. He saw Queen Elizabeth I dancing alone on rainy days in Whitehall Palace
and female barbers shaving beards in Seven Dials, but he could barely recall his mother’s face.”
Fowler came up with the brainwave of having Bryant undertake a course of experimental chemical therapy to treat a life-threatening condition. He recovered, but the drugs have left him prone to out-of-body experiences. These – and here is The Fairy Feller’s masterstroke – allow him to have occasional meetings with pivotal figures from London’s past, such as Sir William Gilbert and Samuel Pepys. Such is the spell that Fowler casts, that these seem perfectly natural and without artifice.
Fowler is, among other things, a comic genius. He mines the rich and productive seam of peculiarly English comedy which gave us George and Weedon Grossmith,
J B ‘Beachcomber’ Morton, the sublime pretensions of Anthony Aloysius Hancock and the surreal world of Basil Fawlty. The book is full of great gags and very good one-liners, such as the world view of a British Library researcher who is consulted for his erudition:
“I expect my libraries and churches to be like my ex-wife:
unlovely, unforgiving, and underheated when you’re inside them.”
Along the way, Fowler (right) has the eagle eye of John Betjeman in the way that he recognises the potency of ostensibly insignificant brand names and the way that they can instantly recreate a period of history, or a passing social mood. At one point, Bryant tries to pay for a round of drinks in a pub:
“Bryant emptied his coat pocket onto the bar counter and spread out seventeen and sixpence three farthings in pre 1973 money, two tram tickets and a Benwell’s Aerial Bombshell left over from a long-past Guy Fawkes night.”
Sometimes Fowler throws in a literary reference that is tailor made for the job. When John May exclaims:
“God, it’s as cold as Keats’s owl in here..”
… I had to reach for my Oxford Book of English Verse to confirm a vague schoolboy memory of Keats;
“St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold”
Fowler has his own view of the modern world, and he occasionally treats himself to the luxury of having a character give voice to it. One of Bryant’s eccentric acquaintances lets rip:
“I’m staying where no one who’s interested in singing competitions or baking shows will ever venture. I pray that when we find life on another planet it turns out to be a lot more fun than ours and that they have relaxed immigration laws. I really do prefer 1752. If we’d had the internet back then people would have spent their days looking at Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, not shots of Justin Bieber’s dick.”
Such is the rich entertainment that Fowler serves up – bravura writing, poignancy, compassion, complex plotting, biting humour and a unique view of London’s landscape – that it doesn’t really matter who did what to whom, but he stays staunch and true to the crime fiction genre and gives us the answer to the intricate whoddunnit he has constructed. I have read all the previous Bryant and May novels, and this gem more than maintains the high standard Fowler has set for himself. If you love an intriguing murder plot, sparkling humour, wonderful scene-setting and brilliantly stylish writing, then get hold of a copy of this. You won’t be sorry. Wild Chamber is out now.