Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Peculiar crimes and peculiar detectives (Books - Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler)

The post along with this one constitute my review of Full Dark House.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit that Bryant and May, the lead detectives in Full Dark House, belong to, was started during World War II to field everything the more traditional bureaus don't know how to deal with - that refers to the recruits as well as to the crimes. While the motley crew assembled there gives author Christopher Fowler some good opportunities for humor it also lets him create crime solving methods that are less hackneyed than your run-of-the-mill gum-shoe. In a way I guess all the best literary detectives - Miss Marple, Sherlock, VI Warshawski, Morse - are non-traditional creations. But I find the set-in of Arthur Bryant (and this book is the first of a series) a particularly effective combination of literary smarts, belief in the paranormal, and personal circumstances that drive his desire to know.

'When I was a child I sued to believe that bad people always acted for a reason. Now I'm starting to think criminal behaviour is inexplicable,' said Bryant, disconsolately stirring his tea. 'There have always been individuals who are prone to murder. They're methodical, but not logical. Look at Crippen, Wainwright, Seddon, Jack the Ripper - they weren't driven by quantifiable needs but by aberrant impulses. And now the world has become an irrational place. That's why the Sherlock Holmes method of detection no longer works; logic is fading. The value system we were raised by in the thirties has little relevance. Beneath this toic attitude of "business as usual" there is madness in the very air.'

'I don't know how you can think that.' May wiped a patch of window clear with his sleeve and watched the sheets of obscuring rain slide across the road like Japanese paper screens. 'Throughout history, human nature remains unchanged. The world's oldest questions are still being asked. Medea, Oedipus, we're not adding anything that the Greeks didn't already know. If you believe our knowledge has no relevance, why have you become a detective?'

And there you have it. The essential conflict that is going to drive the relationship between Bryant and May. I hope Fowler stays true to it. It works well.

Fowler set up some good red herrings in this plot that had me believing I had everything figured out when I hadn't. He also had a couple plot points I caught onto pretty early and which did not turn out to be terribly surprising, but all in all, the ending of Full Dark House was very satisfying. The next time I feel like a mystery, I'll try to track the next one down, I wonder if it is written yet.


Anonymous said...

Nice piece. And you can read an interview I did with Christopher here:

Ted said...

Mark - I enjoyed that interview - I'm a process-freak since my years of teaching acting, so I always like hearing about artists' ways in.