Christopher Fowler – Bryant & May: The Burning Man

christopherfowler-theburningmanLondon 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.

Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May had crossed my radar a number of times in the past, but as is so often the case with long running series, I was hesitant to start in the middle. 2015 is a year of reading dangerously (well, sort of…), so when I got the chance I jumped at reading and reviewing The Burning Man, which is the twelfth book in the series. Fortunately, the book stands on its own very well and I’m glad I took a chance, because it was just so much fun. 

A crime novel obviously has to have a crime at its core and the case at the heart of The Burning Man is strange and weirdly wonderful, as Fowler pulls the wool over our eyes from the start. This was facilitated by the peculiar narrative construction, which took some getting used to. Fowler writes from shifting perspectives – not just from those of Bryant and May and their team members, but also that of the killer – interspersed with short pieces from what seems to be an omniscient narrator. As some of the switches were rather abrupt, without any typographical sign posting, this felt somewhat disorienting until I got used to Fowler’s writing style. Though, to be fair this may also have been caused by the layout of my eARC, it might not be a problem in the finished copy.

But to get back to the nature of the case, I really enjoyed the mystery there. For not only is it unclear who is the murderer, it is also unclear why these victims are murdered. Any consideration of motive is also muddled by the fact that the murders take place within an almost apocalyptic atmosphere in the middle of the worst riots London has seen in decades—in fact, the riots seem to be jointly inspired by the 2011 London riots and the Occupy Movement that was active later in that same year. The riots make it unclear whether the murders are crimes of opportunity, where they were inspired by the riots, or whether the perpetrator just cleverly used the riots as a cover. It made for an interesting puzzle and I really liked how Fowler painted his scenes and the way the protesters’ anger was depicted. It felt very much like social commentary on the events in the financial sector of the last half decade, not least because Arthur Bryant is vocally supportive of the protesters’ cause.

The crew of the Peculiar Crimes Unit was fantastic. They’re such a mixed bunch, which is just wonderful to see. You sometimes hear that it would come off forced to have broad representation in what is essentially a limited cast, but Fowler proves it’s quite possible, with added intersectionality as well. I adored Bryant and May. They are absolutely wonderful characters. Quite eccentric and very stubborn, I loved their interaction with their team, but especially with each other. The bond between them feels so solid and genuine that the ending of the book truly tore at my heart. Bryant’s struggles with what at first just seems old age catching up with him in combination with just being Bryant, but  which turns out to be far more nefarious than that. His confusion and fear at times was so tangible and I really felt for him. My other favourites were Janice and Meera. I loved their arc and their mutual support. Both Janice and Meera need to discover what they truly want out of life and whether they’re willing to give up their jobs at the unit to please their loved ones. I really liked how Fowler handled this and was cheering for both of them.

Of course outside of the crew of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, the book’s biggest protagonist is London itself; Fowler shows the city in all of its glorious, brutal, strange, mysterious, and wonderful essence and his and Bryant’s love of the city just oozes of the page. My favourite scenes were those where Bryant seemingly goes off on a historical tangent only to bring it back around to the case. As such I loved his walk with the son of one of the intended victims, where he  shows him the Ripper murder sites and tells the story of the Ripper investigation and posits that we’ll never know the truth of who did it and why. It was a poignant and fascinating passage and I loved how he used it to gain the boy’s trust.

The Burning Man is a wonderfully quirky novel and while I had to get used to its style I had a complete blast with it. According to Fowler this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Bryant and May, but I’m glad to know that even if there might be only a limited number of stories left to tell, I have the eleven previous books to look forward to.  Very much recommended.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.