Review: Bryant & May and the Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

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Bryant and May are back in the twelfth installment of Christopher Fowler’s long running series which finds the detectives of the Peculiar Crimes Unit investigating a bizarre series of murders leading up to Guy Fawkes Night.  The problems begin when a London banker is accused of insider trading at the Findersbury Private Bank.  This causes bad publicity for the bank and enormous losses for its clientele but it is also connected to a more grievous turn of events.  As Bryant points out, “[t]here’s nothing more frightening than watching what people do when they start to lose money.”  In this case, they start protesting in the streets.  Soon these mobs become a flash point of social and political unrest and the protesters grow more vocal and violent.  When a homeless man is killed on the steps of the bank by a Molotov cocktail, it appears he is an accidental victim of the mob’s violence.  Bryant and May, however,  suspect otherwise and begin investigating the case.  When a second man is murdered with burning tar and covered in feathers it is clear they are dealing with the mysterious agenda of a twisted murderer.  And when the murders continue coming one a day, the PCU fear they will culminate in some horrific event on Guy Fawkes Night.

The plot has its share twists and turns and the reveal is ultimately satisfying but the real meat on the bone of the book is the social and political commentary provided by Bryant and company on the state of modern society.  As one of Bryant’s friends notes, this is a society where you see “the urban middle class destroyed, the working poor exploited, the vulgar rich elevated to eminence, the underclass demonised [and] the wasteland of celebrity held in veneration.”  But as much as Bryant laments society’s current problems, as well as the loss of many London institutions, it is clear he would rather live in this world than give up on it.  During the course of the book, the reader becomes aware that Bryant is suffering from a medical condition which he valiantly tries to hide from May and the PCU.  But he can’t keep it a secret forever and when he finally confesses his condition to his friend he also enumerates a bucket list that is both funny and heart-wrenching.  In the hands of a different author this book might feel like a light mystery given its cast of quirky and endearing characters, but Fowler’s prose is clever and his use of British history throughout give it an enjoyable heft.  The book can be enjoyed on its own but this is a series that is well worthing reading from the beginning.

Bryant & May and the Burning Man, Bantam, 416 pp., $26.00.