Published 26 March 2015 by Doubleday
London is under siege. A banking scandal has filled the city with violent protests, and as the anger in the streets detonates, a young homeless man burns to death after being caught in the crossfire between rioters and the police.
But all is not as it seems; an opportunistic killer is using the chaos to exact revenge, but his intended victims are so mysteriously chosen that the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in to find a way of stopping him.
Using their network of eccentric contacts, elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May hunt down a murderer who adopts incendiary methods of execution. But they soon find their investigation taking an apocalyptic turn as the case comes to involve the history of mob rule, corruption, rebellion, punishment and the legend of Guy Fawkes.
At the same time, several members of the PCU team reach dramatic turning points in their lives – but the most personal tragedy is yet to come, for as the race to bring down a cunning killer reaches its climax, Arthur Bryant faces his own devastating day of reckoning.
‘I always said we’d go out with a hell of a bang,’ warns Bryant.
* * *
Despite The Burning Man being the twelfth book, this series had somehow completely passed me by until Sophie from Transworld contacted me about taking part in the recent blog tour (you can read a Q&A with Christopher Fowler here).
I was trying to think of a way to describe these two senior (both by rank and age) detectives. The best comparison I can think of is a combination of the TV programmes ‘New Tricks’ mixed with the irascibility of ‘Inspector Morse’. It isn’t quite clear how old they are, but they are well past a normal detective’s retirement age. Arthur St John Aloysius Bryant is very well read with a whole heap of information filed away in his brain and an office full of well used old reference books. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, a character trait which often makes him unpopular with his superiors. His long suffering colleague John May, who is only slightly younger, appears to be the more patient of the two and is constantly having to keep an eye on his eccentric and unpredictable partner.
Although I hadn’t read any of the previous books, I didn’t feel that this mattered and actually this book gave me an appetite to start at the beginning of the series to find out their back story.
Both detectives are part of the ‘PCU’ – the Peculiar Crimes Unit, headed up by the seemingly lazy and incompetent Unit Chief, Raymond Land. A covert division, set up about 50 years previously, their task is to prevent public disorder and panic on the street and in the words of Raymond Land “we are in charge of London”.
In this case, the City of London is the target of a series of riots and protests, sparked off by the scandal and corruption which has taken place at Findersbury Private Bank. The story is very much a political commentary of our times, with references to capitalism and banker greed.
There is a killer running loose, who may be using the riots as cover for his murderous activities. All the murders have a reference to fire or burning – a homeless man is burned alive in a bank doorway amongst other grisly occurrences. I don’t want to give away anything to spoil the story but there is one particular scene almost towards the end where the tension was almost unbearable.
This has a very different and quirky style to the crime books that I normally read and I did enjoy it, including the historical references to people or places. Bryant has a particular disregard of authority, nothing new there in crime stories, but it’s their colleagues in the PCU who enhance the story with their realism. Christopher Fowler has created a well rounded cast of characters. With the exception of ‘those in charge’, they all pull together and look out for each other. Arthur Bryant is having to face his own personal issues and some of the scenes involving him are quite moving.
I started working in the City of London nearly 20 years ago and many of the places mentioned in the book are so familiar, I didn’t need to use much imagination to be able to visualise the landscape. I still remember the City May Day riots that were really very scary if you happened to be caught up in them.
There are some parts of the story that will make you smile with its dry and dark humour, and others that will make you wince and read through your fingers at the graphic descriptions but if you want something a little bit different to the normal run of the mill police procedurals then I would recommend this one.
My thanks to Sophie and the publisher Transworld and Netgalley for the copy to review.
About the author:
Christopher Fowler is a Londoner born (in Greenwich) and bred. For many years he jointly owned and ran one of the UK’s top film marketing companies.
He is the author of many novels and short story collections, from the urban unease of cult fictions such as Roofworld and Spanky, the horror-pastiche of Hell Train to the much-praised and award-winning Bryant and May series of detective novels – and his two critically acclaimed autobiographies, Paperboy and Film Freak.
He lives in King’s Cross.