London’s Burning ‘Bryant and May: The Burning Man’ by Christopher Fowler

burningmanI read the first Bryant and May novel, Full Dark House, many years ago. At the time it was the only one. Their second outing, The Water Room, is one of my favourite ever reads. Like all the Bryant and May books, it’s a love letter to London and its curious folklore, blended with a flawlessly plotted mystery. All of the Bryant & May novels are excellent, but The Water Rooms stands at the pinnacle.

The thing about being a book lover, and in particular a book blogger, is that there are simply too many books. There’s always some new floozy walking into the bookshop, turning heads and making us forget series we are wedded to. I’ve read the first five Bryant and May novels, own the next three (which my wife has read, she’s a fan too), but was flabbergasted to discover that three more have been published, whilst my attention was elsewhere.

The Burning Man is the twelfth Bryant and May novel and now, amazingly, there are as many that I haven’t read, as those I have. How did so much time slip by, and how come I stopped reading a series I thoroughly enjoyed? The Victoria Vanishes (No. 6) has been on my to-be-read shelf for a long time, yet is somehow in stasis. Christopher Fowler is not an isolated case. There are several trilogies, where I’ve enjoyed the first two books, but still haven’t read the last volume.

When offered a chance to read this latest Bryant and May instalment, I jumped at it, seizing the opportunity to reconnect with one of my favourite authors. It was like meeting up with old friends. You worry it might be awkward, but before you know it, it’s as though you’ve never been away.

Part of the draw of  Fowler’s books is his apparent encyclopaedic knowledge of London lore. I love London; just wandering about, looking at the curious buildings that stand cheek by jowl. I love the sense of history; not just the big famous bits, but the little pieces too. The lost churches, the old guilds and the hidden rivers. All the stuff Fowler writes so eloquently about. There are a few pretenders to his throne, but Fowler is the undisputed pearly king of London folklore. Marry this with tight plotting, superlative characterisation, and a side order of dry wit, and it’s no wonder we have such a fine series of books.

For Bryant and May’s latest instalment, Fowler has taken two modern-day foes that have centuries of tradition. The banks, deep rooted with the development of the city, and Guy Fawkes, one of London’s greatest folklore anti-heroes, now co-opted by modern anti-establishment movements. The novel is set between Halloween and Bonfire Night, a period of time dripping with folk connotations and import.

The Burning Man opens with London in turmoil. The city’s population has had enough of the rich getting richer. Protests and demonstrations have been sparked by the insider dealings of Dexter Cornell, a man who has broken a bank, yet walked away with millions. The city is a powder keg waiting to ignite. When ‘Break the Banks’ marches spill over into violence, a homeless man is caught in the crossfire; burned alive in a bank foyer. The PCU are called to clean up what is expected to be a routine investigation. As we know, when Bryant and May are involved, nothing is routine.

In their own inimitable style, the ageing sleuths start to tease out a wider plot and when another victim is found twenty-four hours later, it is clear the first death was no accident. Once more Bryant and May are up against a fevered mind working to an unseen timetable. Fighting off the usual scepticism from within the force, the peculiar might of the PCU swings into action.

The twelfth Bryant and May novel is a treat from start to finish. The tidbits of London folklore are entertaining, as is Bryant’s left-wing cynicism. Fowler clearly loves his city, but once again he rails against its inequalities and inequity. He is a powerful interlocutor on behalf of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Not everybody will be convinced by the beat of Fowler’s drum but it makes a welcome counterpoint to the right-wing clarion, that London is a centre for business, where we should bow to the bankers and swear fealty to their temple of Mammon. Political leanings aside, the novel contains skulduggery aplenty, with an intelligent and inventive murderer on the loose. Bryant remains as bumbling and enigmatic as ever, whilst piecing together a jigsaw no one else can see.

The Burning Man is a fine crime novel. I enjoyed it from first page to last. I have no idea why I took so long to read another Bryant and May. The best thing about having lost touch is that I now have five more novels to catch up on. Here’s to being a better friend in future.

Many Thanks to Sophie at Transworld for sending me a copy of the book. Don’t miss my Q&A with Christopher from yesterday. 

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