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  • Written by Christopher Fowler
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A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery

Written by Christopher FowlerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Christopher Fowler

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: June 01, 2004
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-553-90041-5
Published by : Bantam Bantam Dell
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mystery (167) fiction (85) london (45) england (28) crime (26) wwii (18)
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A bomb rips through present-day London, tragically ending the crime-fighting partnership of Arthur Bryant and John May begun more than a half-century ago during another infamous bombing: the Blitz of World War II. Desperately searching for clues to the saboteur’s identity, May finds the notes his old friend kept of their very first case and a past that may have returned…with murderous vengeance. It was an investigation that began with the grisly murder of a pretty young dancer. In a city shaken by war, a faceless killer stalked London’s theater row, creating his own sinister drama. And it would take Bryant’s unorthodox techniques and May’s dogged police work to catch a fiend whose ability to escape detection seemed almost supernatural—a murderer who decades later may have returned to kill one of them…and won’t stop until he kills the other.

Excerpt

Chapter One


Out With A Bang

It really was a hell of a blast.

The explosion occurred at daybreak on the second Tuesday morning of September, its shock waves rippling through the beer-stained streets of Mornington Crescent. It detonated car alarms, hurled house bricks across the street, blew a chimney stack forty feet into the sky, ruptured the eardrums of several tramps, denuded over two dozen pigeons, catapulted a surprised ginger tom through the window of a kebab shop and fired several roofing tiles into the forehead of the Pope, who was featured on a poster for condoms opposite the tube station.

As the dissonance pulsed the atmosphere it fractured the city’s fragile caul of civilization, recalling another time of London bombs. Then, as now, dust and debris had speckled down through the clear cool air between the buildings, whitening the roads and drifting in the morning sunlight like dandelion seeds. For a split second, the past and the present melted together.

It was a miracle that no one was seriously injured.

Or so it seemed at first.

When Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright received the phone call, her first thought was that she had overslept and missed the start of her shift. Then she remembered that she had just celebrated her retirement from the police force. Years of being woken at odd hours had taught her to focus her attention within three rings of the bedside telephone. Rubbing dreams from her head, she glanced at the clock and listened to the urgent voice in her ear. She rose from the side of her future husband, made her way quietly (as quietly as she could; she was heavy-footed and far from graceful) through the flat, dressed and drove to the offices above Mornington Crescent tube station.

Or rather, she drove to what was left of them, because the North London Peculiar Crimes Unit had, to all intents and purposes, been obliterated. The narrow maze of rooms that had existed in the old Edwardian house above the station was gone, and in its place wavered fragments of burning lath-and-plaster alcoves. The station below was untouched, but nothing remained of the department that had been Longbright’s working home.

She made her way between the fire engines, stepping across spit-sprays from snaked hosepipes, and tried to discern the extent of the damage. It was one of those closed-in mornings that would barely bother to grow light. Grey cloud fitted as tightly over the surrounding terraces as a saucepan lid, and the rain that dampened the churning smoke obscured her view. The steel-reinforced door at the entrance to the unit had been blown out. Firemen were picking their way back down the smouldering stairs as she approached. She recognized several of the officers who were taping off the pavement and road beyond, but there was no sign of the unit’s most familiar faces.

An ominous coolness crept into the pit of her stomach as she watched the yellow-jacketed salvage team clearing a path through the debris. She dug into the pocket of her overcoat, withdrew her mobile and speed-dialled the first of the two numbers that headed her list. Eight rings, twelve rings, no answer.

Arthur Bryant had no voicemail system at home. Longbright had ceased encouraging him to record messages after his ‘static surge’ experiments had magnetized the staff of a British Telecom call centre in Rugby. She tried the second number. After six rings, John May’s voice told her to leave a message. She was about to reply when she heard him behind her.

‘Janice, you’re here.’ May’s black coat emphasized his wide shoulders and made him appear younger than his age (he was somewhere in his eighties—no one was quite sure where). His white hair was hidden under a grey woollen hat. Streaks of charcoal smeared his face and hands, as though he was preparing to commit an act of guerrilla warfare.

‘John, I was just calling you.’ Longbright was relieved to see someone she recognized. ‘What on earth happened?’

The elderly detective looked shaken but uninjured, a thankfully late arrival at the blast scene. ‘I have absolutely no idea. The City of London Anti-terrorist Unit has already discounted political groups. There were no call signs of any sort.’ He looked back at the ruined building. ‘I left the office at about ten last night. Arthur wanted to stay on. Arthur . . .’ May widened his eyes at the blasted building as if seeing it for the first time. ‘He always says he doesn’t need to sleep.’

‘You mean he’s inside?’ asked Longbright.

‘I’m afraid so.’

‘Are you sure he was still there when you left?’

‘No question about it. I rang him when I got home. He told me he was going to work right through the night. Said he wasn’t tired and wanted to clear the backlog. You know how he is after a big case, he opens a bottle of Courvoisier and keeps going until dawn. His way of celebrating. Mad at his age. There was something in his voice . . .’

‘What do you mean?’

May shook his head. ‘I don’t know. As though he wanted to talk to me but changed his mind, that weird hesitation thing he does on the phone. Some officers in an ARV from the Holmes Road division saw him standing at the window at around four thirty. They made fun of him, just as they always do. He opened the window and told them to bugger off, threw a paperweight at them. I should have stayed with him.’

‘Then we would have lost both of you,’ said Longbright. She looked up at the splintered plaster and collapsed brickwork. ‘I mean, he can’t still be alive.’

‘I wouldn’t hold out too much hope.’

A tall young man in a yellow nylon jacket came over. Liberty DuCaine was third-generation Caribbean, currently attached to the unit in a forensic team with two young Indian women, the brightest students from their year. Liberty hated his name, but his brother Fraternity, who was also in the force, hated his more. Longbright raised her hand.

‘Hey, Liberty. Do they have any idea why—’

‘An incendiary device of some kind, compact but very powerful. You can see from here how clean the blast pattern is. Very neat. It destroyed the offices but hasn’t even singed the roof of the station.’ The boy’s impatience to explain his ideas resulted in a staccato manner of speech that May had trouble keeping up with. ‘There are some journalists sniffing around, but they won’t get anything. You OK?’

‘Arthur couldn’t have got out in time.’

‘I know that. They’ll find him, but we’re waiting for a JCB to start moving some of the rafters. They haven’t picked up anything on the sound detectors and I don’t think they will, ’cos the place came down like a pack of cards. There’s not a lot holding these old houses in one piece, see.’ Liberty looked away, embarrassed to be causing further discomfort.

Longbright started walking towards the site, but May gently held her back. ‘Let me take you home, Janice,’ he offered.

She shrugged aside the proffered hand. ‘I’m all right, I just didn’t think it would end like this. It is the end, isn’t it?’ Longbright was already sure of the answer. Arthur Bryant and John May were men fashioned by routines and habits. They had closed a case and stayed on to analyse the results, catching up, enjoying each other’s company. It was what they always did, their way of starting afresh. Everyone knew that. John had left the building first, abandoning his insomniac partner.

‘Who’s conducting the search? They’ll have to verify—’

‘The fire department’s first priority is to make sure it’s safe,’ said Liberty. ‘Of course they’ll report their findings as quickly as possible. Anything I hear, you’ll know. John’s right, you should go home, there’s nothing you can do.’

May stared up at the building, suddenly unsure of himself.

Longbright watched the column of rusty smoke rising fast in the still grey air. She felt disconnected from the events surround- ing her. It was the termination of a special partnership; their names had been inextricably linked, Bryant, May, Longbright. Now she had left and Bryant was gone, leaving May alone. She had spent so much time in their company that the detectives were more familiar than her closest relatives, like friendly monochrome faces in old films. They had been, and would always be, her family.

Longbright realized she was crying even before she registered the shout, as though time had folded back on itself. A fireman was calling from the blackened apex of the building. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, would not allow herself to hear it. As she ran towards the ruins with the fire officers at her heels, the familiar codes started passing through the rescue group.

A single body, an elderly white male, had been located in the wreckage. For Arthur Bryant and John May, an unorthodox alliance had come to a violent end. They were her colleagues, her mentors, her closest friends. She would not allow herself to believe that Bryant was dead.

An immolation had joined the end to the beginning, past and present blown together. John May had always sensed that routine demise would not be enough for his partner. They had just closed a sad, cruel case, their last together. There were no more outstanding enemies. Bryant had finally started thinking about retirement as the unit headed for a period of radical change, sanctioned by new Home Office policies. He and May had been discussing them only the Friday before, during their customary evening walk to the river. May thought back to their conversation, trying to recall whether they had spoken of anything unusual. They had strolled to Waterloo Bridge at sunset, arguing, joking, at ease in each other’s company.

John and Arthur, inseparable, locked together by proximity to death, improbable friends for life.


From the Hardcover edition.
Christopher Fowler|Author Q&A

About Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler - Full Dark House

Photo © Martin Butterworth

Christopher Fowler is the acclaimed author of the award-winning Full Dark House and nine other Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries: The Water Room, Seventy-Seven Clocks, Ten Second Staircase, White Corridor, The Victoria Vanishes, Bryant & May on the Loose, Bryant & May off the Rails, The Memory of Blood, and The Invisible Code. He lives in London, where he is at work on his next Peculiar Crimes Unit novel.

Author Q&A

Full Dark House is the first in a series of novels featuring Arthur Bryant and John May, partners in the London Police Department's Peculiar Crimes Unit. This is perhaps one of the most unusual series to be introduced this year, considering that Bryant is killed at the beginning of Full Dark House and we only come to know him in retrospect. Why do you begin the series in this fashion?

I wanted to start in a completely unexpected manner. I’m very interested in upending the traditional approach to mystery fiction, even though the story is careful to use traditional devices, like the planting of clues, mistaken identities and an exciting denouement. Also, it’s appealing to tell the reader that something is impossible before setting out to show why it’s not! For Bryant & May’s first book, I thought I should create both a beginning and an end. It seemed the logical place to start...

A great deal of Full Dark House takes place in London in 1940, during the blitzkrieg bombing. Your penchant for historical detail is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Full Dark House. Is the history of early and mid-20th Century London of particular interest to you? What drew you to set so much of Full Dark House in that era?


London is a city with over 2000 years of history, but I find it’s not served well in mystery fiction—stories rarely used the landscape to its best effect. I wanted to take Bryant & May back to their first meeting and their first case, which conveniently placed me at  a very crucial time for London. Also, it’s the last era one can still research by just talking to people about their experiences. The week in which the book is set is very well covered from a historical point of view—the daily events are taken from each day’s newspaper headlines, then personal reminiscences were added for authenticity.

On a related note you also demonstrate a great deal of familiarity with the live theater in London before and during the years of World War II.  Some of your details, such as the manner in which the affordability of the cinema adversely affected live theater and actors, were fascinating. Do you have any background or interest in the live theater?

To grow up in London is to be surrounded by theaters; they were cheap and easy to get into, so kids like me had no special attitude about going to see a play—it was something you did like going to the movies or a football game, no big deal. We never thought of it as high art, but we wondered how it worked, and I became interested in the mechanics.

What made you decide to have your main characters work for the London Police Department's Peculiar Crimes Unit? For readers who may not be familiar with the book, can you please share what the Peculiar Crimes Unit does?

There are two ways to write about the police—you can take a very gritty, realistic point of view, using only factual details, or you invent your own special way of tackling crime, which to me was far more appealing. During the war, many experimental units were set up (for example, the world’s first therapy unit was created to help bereaved and bombed-out residents). The Peculiar Crimes Unit handles the cases that the regular police are not equipped to deal with; cases that could cause social panic, ones that require sensitive handling, ones that the regular police simply don’t understand, and those that fall into the grey area of possibly not being crimes at all. Such divisions existed, but their existence was denied.  

Have any of your previous works featured recurring characters? If not, why did you decide to begin this series? If so, why did you decide to create this new series?  What are the challenges involved with developing a new series?

I have actually used Bryant & May several times before (most notably in the novels Rune and Soho Black) and felt I could do much more with them, especially because their working methods are so unorthodox and unusual. This series has given me the chance to place them center stage and have some fun. I think mysteries should be so much fun to read that reaching the solution should be almost an added attraction. The hardest part is bringing continuity to the books, yet making sure that each one stands alone.

Will you concentrate exclusively on writing Bryant & May mysteries for the foreseeable future, or do you intend to alternate them with stand-alone novels?

No, I produce an anthology of short stories every other year, and have also written a very different crime novel called Plastic—with a small cameo from Arthur Bryant!

What drew you to writing in the suspense/historical suspense genres?


Actually, it seems as if I have been writing in the genre for years, as several other of my books would qualify as suspense thrillers or perhaps very dark comedies. The historical element is appealing, but I generally prefer to work in the present — the past is hard to catch accurately.

What British and American mystery writers have influenced you the most?


My tastes are extremely eclectic, from Dickens, MR James, Robert Harris and JG Ballard in the UK to John Collier, Harlan Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Tobias Wolfe and William Faulkner in the US, but there are hundreds of other authors I admire.

You have written a number of novels as well as a great number of short stories. Out of all of your work, which is your favorite novel and short story?


Tough one, as there are over a hundred published short stories to begin with. I’m very proud of two stories called Tales From Britannica Castle which I wrote as an homage to Mervyn Peake, and my favourite novels are a coin-toss between the very dark mystery thriller Psychoville, and a lighter, less successful book I wrote called Calabash—I got the most fan mail from these two, and they represent parts of my childhood memories. Calabash still makes me laugh.

Although you have an extensive bibliography, we were very interested to learn that writing novels is not your only work. We understand that you also are creative director for a film and design company called Creative Partnership, which creates campaigns for films in the UK. What is involved in creating such a campaign? And can you give us some examples of some films for which you've created campaigns? How do you balance your creative directing work with your writing?

Everyone asks how I find the time to run a large company and write. The easy answer is that I don’t watch TV (actually I watched the whole of Six Feet Under and Dead Like Me so that’s not strictly true). Creative Partnership has created national and sometimes global campaigns for films like Thunderbirds, Love, Actually, Moulin Rouge, Tomorrow Never Dies, Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. We write and produce all kinds of elements from the one hour TV specials, title sequences, TV and radio campaigns, and of course movie posters. It teaches you to write quickly and succinctly, marrying craft with art.

How does your film work influence your writing?


I love film and tend to think visually. If I can’t picture a scene in my head, how can I expect my reader to? I make strong use of locations in my novels, almost as if they were extra characters, and I try to under-write scenes, leaving room for the imagination. I also have music in mind when I write, to give me a tone to work with.

What is your daily writing/research schedule like?


It’s rather erratic, owing to my work commitments, but I tend to write best when I haven’t done too much for a day or so—I feel there are more ideas knocking around inside my head.

What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

You’ll have The Water Room when the paperback for Full Dark House arrives, and Seventy Seven Clocks not long after that. I’m hoping that there will be at least six books in the series, and maybe many more. It depends how popular I prove to be in America!


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"An absolutely riveting account of London during the Blitz."—Booklist

"Atmospheric, hugely beguiling and as filled with tricks and sleights of hand as a magician's sleeve...it is English gothic at its eccentric best; a combination of Ealing comedy and grand opera: witty, charismatic, occasionally touching and with a genuine power to thrill." —Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat

"A first class thriller, but don't expect any sleep." —Sunday Telegraph

"The writing is as ever fluid and pacey, the characterization deft and the plot fresh and ingenious." —Independent on Sunday

"The intrigues of the theater murders, which decimate the cast, create considerable drama..... The dynamic between May and Bryant makes for compelling reading"—Publishers Weekly

“How many locked-room puzzles can the duo unlock before their Peculiar Crimes Unit is disbanded? Many more, one hopes.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A madcap mystery that’s completely crazy and great fun.” —Los Angeles Times

“Chris Fowler is a master of the classical form.” —New Y ork Times Book Review

  • Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler
  • September 30, 2008
  • Fiction - Mystery & Detective
  • Bantam
  • $15.00
  • 9780553385533

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