What a wonderful imagination Christopher Fowler has! This fourth novel in the Bryant and May mystery series involves the bizarre deaths of several minor celebrities, a mysterious highwayman complete with horse, cape and tricorn hat, gangs of feuding schoolchildren and a possible link to the Knights Templar. It’s just the sort of case the Peculiar Crimes Unit was created to deal with, and this is one of the most peculiar yet.
As the novel opens, we learn that yet again the PCU is facing the threat of closure, with Bryant and May’s outdated methods of detection coming under attack. Bryant and May – Arthur and John – are the two elderly detectives around whom the rest of the unit revolves. John May is logical, methodical and more open to modern technology, but his partner prefers to rely on his tried-and-tested network of historians, clairvoyants, witches and psychics. Their different personalities and different approaches to crime-solving are the reasons why the two of them have had so much success over the years, right from the very first case they worked on together during the Second World War (described in Full Dark House). Among the successes, however, there has been one failure: the identity of the serial killer known as the Leicester Square Vampire, which has remained unknown since the 1970s.
Bryant and May’s latest mystery begins when a controversial modern artist is drowned in the display case of one of her own art installations. The only witness is Luke Tripp, a twelve-year-boy from nearby St Crispin’s Boys’ School, who claims to have seen a figure resembling Dick Turpin ride into the gallery on horseback and throw the artist into the tank. No sooner have the detectives begun to investigate than the Highwayman strikes again, his second murder as strange and inexplicable as the first. As Bryant and May dig deeper, they uncover some similarities between the Highwayman and the Vampire; if only they can find a way to solve both mysteries at once, the future of the PCU could be secured.
I enjoyed Ten-Second Staircase as I’ve enjoyed all of the previous books in this series, but this is probably my least favourite of the four. The Peculiar Crimes Unit seems to have been facing closure in every book so far and that aspect of the story is starting to feel repetitive, especially as with another nine (at least) books to follow, it was obvious that it would be allowed to stay open. I also couldn’t help feeling that the author was using Bryant and May in this book to voice his own views and opinions on society; this meant that the dialogue sometimes felt more like a lecture rather than a natural conversation between friends.
The things that I did love in this book were the same things I loved in the first three: the unusual and imaginative mystery (which, as usual, I failed to solve), Arthur’s unorthodox detection methods, and the fascinating historical facts and pieces of trivia which are incorporated into the plot. The real attraction of this series, of course, is the partnership of Bryant and May themselves, but we do get to know other members of the PCU as well and some of these characters are developed further in this novel, particularly May’s agoraphobic granddaughter, April, who I’m sure we’ll see more of in future books.
I’ll be continuing soon with book number five, White Corridor!