Book Review: Bryant and May Off the Rails by Christopher Fowler

Posted October 7, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews / 0 Comments

Eighth in the Bryant & May mystery crime series based in London and revolving around two ancient detectives who should have retired years ago.

My Take

Despite being shut down in Bryant & May on the Loose, 7, the Peculiar Crimes Unit is back up…on probation…at The Old Warehouse. It’s mostly Bryant in this with his magic tricks and rudeness, although he was quite mild with the students. The running joke in Bryant and May Off the Rails is those playing and tarot cards Bryant is messing about with. May is much more reserved; he’s depressed over April May’s defection.

I did enjoy Bryant’s description of Faraday: “Sad Porky Timeserver” and “Snivelling Little Rodent” which came at the end of a diatribe against the above memo. Even better is Fowler’s description of Bryant, ROFL, “a tortoise minus its shell, thrust upright and stuffed into a dreadful suit”. Bryant does bemoan the loss of London past with its history and traditions. Naturally, I moan right along with him, as I too adore history and Fowler brings that loss to life.

It is clever how Fowler uses a memo to introduce the characters and set the stage for how the PCU is viewed. I’m also looking forward to more of Fraternity DuCaine. I suspect he has just been added to the roster. And Mrs. DuCaine asks only two things of PCU: revenge and why Fraternity failed his police exam.

Wouldn’t ya just know the “powers-that-be” are blaming PUC for losing their suspect in Bryant & May on the Loose. Gimme a break! They have an excessively limited budget in a crappy temporary headquarters that has holes in the floors, walls, and ceilings. Faraday follows this snark up with ordering the PCU to find the guy in another week or they’re closing them down. Again. In spite of the fact that they were the only ones to figure out who it was and catch him. Arghh…

There are ghost stories surrounding the new temporary warehou…, er, office. The Occult Society of Great Britain performed a number of rituals in the building. Certainly all the drawings and paintings confirm that! Maggie and Mrs. Yu contribute to the metaphysical with their facts about King’s Cross’ hidden powers and the ley lines. Mrs. Yu also noted historic health issues that will make you grateful for what we now know.

I have to agree with Danbury’s peek in at the Ken and Barbie Killers, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, with their blankness and the serial killer, Dennis Nilsen, who was so boring that he put his victims to sleep. I’ll never understand people like that, and I’m damn grateful I won’t. These two sets of killers are too much like the one who took umbrage at Gloria’s actions.

Aww, it’s sad that students no longer protest simply because their education could be cancelled. Whatever happened to challenging authority? Questioning the status quo? Lively debate on both sides?

It’s curious that the students are all so eager to get rid of May. It’s also funny, as Bryant and May point out that everything is revolving around the Underground: the students studying urban planning, Ruby’s books on the Underground, Mr. Fox staging attacks down below, and all the ghost stories.

Wait’ll you read Rajan’s issues. Omigod, Bryant is too right. He does have social issues. He is so defensive and works so hard at it that I couldn’t decide if I should laugh or sputter…so I did both. Theo is a major jerk. If he was truly so confident in his superiority, I shouldn’t think he’d need to behave so poorly.

Huh. Toby’s explanation of urban planning was fascinating. I had no idea it took all those sorts of issues into account. I’m also with Bryant in amazement at all the information May picks up in his short time at the house of students.

That’s it. The world is coming to an end. Bryant has finally realized that he keeps trying to make the facts fit his theories. The thing is, his arcane interests usually push him in the right direction. Actually, and I’m not sure if I’m finally getting it, or if Fowler is being more clear about how Bryant’s arcane and obscure interests intersect with his cases to provide those clues. It certainly made it easier to understand why detectives and constables get converted over to the PCU version of crime solving.

Scary how often the police are more concerned about who gets a case than about the person who’s been victimized.

What a piece of work! He thought they’d be okay with giving up their lives for him!

“The most useful thing was that Matt trusted me.”

The Story

Arthur Bryant, John May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit are on the trail of an enigma: a young man called Mr Fox. But his identity is false, his links to society are invisible, and his home yields no clues. All they know is that somehow he escaped from a locked room and murdered one of their best and brightest.

Now the detectives are being lured down into the darkest recesses of the London Underground where their quarry, expertly disguised, has struck again. Their search takes them into the vast labyrinth of tunnels, a subterranean world full of legends and ghost stations, which tie the city together. Edging closer to what lies hidden beneath the city — and to the madness that is driving a man to murder — Bryant and May are about to uncover a mystery as bizarre as anything they have ever encountered.

The Characters

Senior Detectives Arthur Bryant and John May are complete opposites who happen to complement each other’s skills. Both are past the age of retirement, but can’t imagine not detecting. Although I suspect any crime scene techs would love to see Bryant out to pasture. Alma Sorrowbridge is Bryant’s long-suffering landlady, battling to save their Chalk Farm home. Brigitte is the divorced Frenchwoman May is seeing. Gwen May was the sister who stayed apart; she now lives happily in Brighton. Elizabeth was John’s daughter; her daughter, April May, John’s granddaughter, resigned and is fleeing to Uncle Alex in Toronto.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) is…
…in constant trouble and threat of being shut down. Begun during World War II to handle sensitive, difficult cases that would impinge on morale, the PCU has undergone multiple changes in oversight. Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright is regretting Liberty DuCaine and the style changes she made; Dan Banbury is the crime scene manager with a good eye for profiling and IT tech, Detective Constables Meera Mangeshkar (she’s the stroppy one) and Colin Bimsley (suffers from a lack of coordination), and Desk Sergeant Jack Renfield are part of the immediate team. Crippen is the staff cat. Raymond Land is the ineffective acting temporary unit chief. Has been for decades. Poor thing. In his memo, he complains that no-one tells him anything… Giles Kershaw, a forensic pathologist at St. Pancras, is not officially associated with them anymore. He took Professor Marshall‘s place. Rosa Lysandrou is the dour coroner’s assistant.

Dave and Dave are two utterly useless Turkish gentlemen who are supposed to be fixing the temporary HQ up. Rufus Abu is one of May’s Haphazards, a young and brilliant computer hacker, dodging the CIA.

King’s Cross Surveillance Centre is…
…a.k.a., North One Watch, an underground room whose personnel monitors activity above and below the streets. Anjam Dutta is a 20-year security expert heading the afternoon surveillance team. Rasheed, Sandwich, Bitter, and Stone are guards while Marianne is a ticket clerk; each has lots of stories about the Underground. Seems Annie Evans is a frequent ghost.

Mr. Gregory is the stationmaster at Mornington Crescent. Larry Hale will be their Site Person for the evening stroll through the Underground.

Home Office
Leslie Faraday is their immediate supervisor, the senior police liaison, with the evil Oskar Kasavian his supervisor determined to shut them down.

Janet Ramsey is the editor of Hard News whom we first met in Ten Second Staircase, 4.

Cassie Field, a visual artist with a history of secret anarchy, designed the logo for the Karma Bar where she works as a manager. Sophie is an old schoolfriend who’s been dumped.

The house of students
Theo Fontvieille owns the house where a number of geeky students pay him rent. Nikos Nicolau is studying to be a biochemical engineer (his family owns restaurants); the rest of the guys — Rajan Sangeeta, Toby Brooke, and Matthew Hillingdon — are into urban planning; and, Ruby Cates is Matt’s worried girlfriend studying Bioinformatics.

The King’s Cross Executioner is…
Mr. Fox, a church caretaker, well, former caretaker. The man PCU arrested in Bryant & May on the Loose, 7. Who escaped after murdering PC Liberty DuCaine. Mac, a heroin addict, a.k.a., Tony McCarthy, is bitterly regretting his deal with Mr. Fox. His father, Jim McCarthy, had been a victim of the King’s Cross Fire some years ago.

Lloyd Lutine had been an English teacher at Pentonville Prison. Georgia Conroy had been a history teacher there. Albert Thomas Edward Ketch was Jonas Ketch‘s father, and he committed suicide in front of his son. Patricia Burton had been the mother.

Gloria Taylor worked the makeup counter and had a five-year-old daughter. Mrs. DuCaine is Liberty’s mother, shocked at his former workmates from Headquarters. Fraternity and Equality “Betty” were Liberty’s brother and sister respectively. Nicholson at Hendon doesn’t understand why Fraternity was turned down either.

Maggie Armitage is a Grade IV White Witch who runs the North London branch of the Coven of St. James the Elder. Mrs. Yu works with atmospheric disturbances. Albert Purberry is almost legitimate as a hypnotist. Detective Sergeant Gladys Longbright had been Janice’s mother who had started out with PCU in 1940. Charles Pearson created the Metropolitan Railway Line while Fowler figured out how to build tunnels under busy streets. Interesting bit of background history on this. Naimh Connor is the duty nurse at University College Hospital who had stitched up Meera’s arm. Daphne, a.k.a., Radiant Lotus Blossom and former assistant to the Immortal Mysterioso, now works in a magic store.

The London Anarchists was a society intended to avenge the Bedlam Martyrs. One branch is called Bash the Rich. The Night Crawler was thought to be an urban myth.

The Cover and Title

The cover is a speckled deep coral with a crazy script font in black for the title and author’s name at top and bottom respectively. It’s the suitcase with its striped interior below center which catches the eye with its assemblage of a rainbow-striped coat, the necessary umbrella, the guidebooks and map, the essential cellphone for proof, the playing and tarot cards under the magnifying lens, that cup of coffee and knitting needles piercing the fedora and the red and black scarf, and a thumbprint that points the way, as Crippen prances out from behind the suitcase.

The title is this whole mystery, it’s simply Bryant and May Off the Rails in its morality and execution.

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