Sunday 4 October 2009

The Victoria Vanishes, by Christopher Fowler

Bryant and May are a pair of geriatric detectives working the mysterious streets of London, taking the time to puzzle over crimes whose patterns are not immediately obvious, finding connections that might be missed by a policeman working the beat and looking to meet his targets. In this, the first I’ve read in the series, their Peculiar Crimes Unit faces closure, their health deterioriates, and a man is murdering women in the middle of crowded pubs.

Bryant and May are similar in many ways to Holmes and Watson, but now that Holmes’s methods have been embraced by the everyday police, to stand out from the crowd takes a bit more effort. But funnily enough, though there’s lots of talk of how unconventional their methods are, in this volume at least their approach has more in common with Frost or Morse than with, say, Dirk Gently.

Nevertheless, this was a highly enjoyable book. Unshowy, straight-ahead prose, fifty short chapters, a good mystery, fascinating stories of London history and marvellous characters… In short, it was as readable as any book I’ve ever read. It’s propulsive, exciting and overall a smashing book – but I’ve no idea why it was up for a British Fantasy Award, since it’s a mystery novel with no fantasy elements whatsoever. It must be the combination of Christopher Fowler and pubs, two of the British Fantasy Society’s favourite things!

Having finished two of the other nominees (Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman), while getting a bit stuck on Simon Clark’s The Midnight Man, this was my favourite of them so far, but it wouldn’t have got my vote, just because it’s not a fantasy book. Nevertheless, highly recommended.

The Victoria Vanishes, by Christopher Fowler, Doubleday, hb, 320pp.

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