This is the third book in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series following the investigations of two elderly detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May, who work for London’s “Peculiar Crimes Unit”. The first in the series, Full Dark House, looked back at their first mystery in the unit’s early days during World War II, while the second, The Water Room, was a fascinating mystery set in the present day and involving London’s system of underground rivers. This third instalment takes us back to 1973, when Britain was facing a winter of strikes and blackouts.
Seventy-Seven Clocks begins with two unusual incidents. The first is the death of a lawyer in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel, believed to be caused by a snake bite, and the second involves a man dressed in Edwardian clothing who runs into the National Gallery and damages a valuable painting. When more bizarre murders, accidents and abductions follow, Bryant and May discover that most of the victims are members of a large, rich family, the Whitstables. As they begin to investigate, the two detectives uncover a connection between the family and a Victorian secret society. Meanwhile, the receptionist at the Savoy Hotel, a seventeen-year-old girl called Jerry Gates decides to do some detective work of her own – but it seems that Jerry might have reasons of her own for disliking the Whitstables.
The solution to the mystery is both ingenious and completely ridiculous, but that has been the case with all three of the Bryant and May mysteries I’ve read and I’ve found that it doesn’t matter to me. In fact, the unusual and implausible plots are one of the reasons this series is so much fun to read and so different from anything else I’ve read. The other reason, of course, is that Bryant and May themselves are such wonderful characters. I find myself liking the character of Arthur Bryant more and more with every book. I love the way he refuses to leave no stone unturned or discount any possible theory, however unlikely it might seem. John May, being Bryant’s opposite in so many ways, is his perfect complement. One of the big differences between the two detectives is that May is willing to move forward and embrace new technology, while Bryant in many ways is still living in the past. As May says, “You find comfort in darkness. I prefer the world brightly lit; there’s so much more to see”.
The role of darkness and light is one of the themes explored during the story, but there were so many other things involved in this book I was slightly overwhelmed by it all! Pre-Raphaelite art, Gilbert and Sullivan societies, Victorian guilds (the Worshipful Company of Watchmakers), the British class system, the invention of electric light, and lots of other interesting topics and pieces of trivia. Christopher Fowler’s knowledge of London’s history is so impressive. Every time I come to the end of a Bryant and May book I feel that I’ve really learned something new.
If I have a criticism of this book, it’s that at nearly 500 pages it felt longer than it really needed to be, and I didn’t find Jerry’s storyline very interesting. It didn’t add much to the main plot in my opinion and could almost have been left out entirely. I thought the story was complex enough without it.
Oh, and if you’re new to Bryant and May and wondering if you need to read the series in the correct order, I would say it’s not necessary at all. It’s my personal preference to read a series in order if possible, but with these books each of the three mysteries I’ve read so far stand alone and are complete stories in themselves. I didn’t like this one quite as much as Full Dark House or The Water Room but I still enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading more Bryant and May soon.