Top positive review
A JOY TO READ
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on July 10, 2021
I am slowly but surely reading my way through the many, many books in Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) series. They feature a ramshackle British police unit originally set up decades past to solve the crimes too bizarre, too esoteric, for ordinary detective methods to find purchase. It’s headed by senior detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, both well up in years by now but still kicking. (Bryant’s well into his eighties and May is close behind him.) May is the voice of reason in the pair, the Dr. Watson to Bryant’s Sherlock Holmes. Bryant is an offshoot, a hilariously comic one, of Holmes blended with, say, John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell –in other words, an eccentric not just in his personal habits but in the way he approaches evidence and solves crimes. In Bryant’s case, something halfway between the esoteric and supernatural usually is involved. In this novel as well as others, he seeks advice from a white witch, who is one of the loonier creations in modern detective fiction. In all of these books, there is a good amount of backwarding and forwarding, May and the other detectives and support staff on the Unit trying to apply good police techniques and solid reasoning to nail down the killer (it’s always a murder case that starts things) while Bryant flies off in tangents, all of which, somehow, mysteriously, come together at the end so that it’s not May and company who resolve matters but Bryant, who, fortunately, May always trusts to come through in the end.
This installment starts with the PCU finally brought an end, killed by a legion of enemies in higher quarters. (Too many high officials have been embarrassed by the Unit’s shenanigans.) The list of allegations against the PCU’s two senor partners includes destruction of government property, contamination and misuse of evidence in criminal investigations, illegal hiring practices, blackmailing a senior Home Office official, releasing hazardous materials inside a Ministry of Defence establishment, and interfering with a member of the royal family. Yes, they did all of these things. When the Unit gets going, chaos always follows.
With the PCU disbanded, Bryant sits in his rented quarters, visibly declining under the eyes of a loving but bemused housekeeper(flatmate?). May, much more robust, shows up to pull him out of his depression. Then there’s a bizarre, and to the government, profoundly embarrassing murder. A dead man with no head on his shoulders is found in a refrigerator unit near a major civic development project that must not go wrong because it would make certain very senior officials look foolish. (Which they are.) No one else knows how to deal with the murder so the PCU is given a stay of execution. It no longer has an office suite. Or computers. Or crime equipment. But it’s given one week to clear up the mess. Now that’s true gratitude.
Soon more murders follow. There are reports of the appearance in the area of a man dressed from head to foot in furs and crowned with a rack of stag horns crafted from razor sharp kitchen knives. Other odd things happen. As usual, Bryant gets sidetracked into exploring the pre-Christian, pagan background of the places where the crimes have taken place. (There’s a touch of Peter Ackroyd here.) The action is non-stop and there are a satisfying number of horrific murders in it, and along the way, the prose pops and sizzles with little zingers like this one, a description of an obviously underwhelming vicar they come across: he “was young and untested, of ineffectual appearance and extremely pale, as if he had been washed clean too many times.” That last qualifier! I love it!
They catch the killer in the end but there’s a twist that sets up the next book in this thoroughly delightful hard to put down series.