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.

 

New Book Releases: The Age of Reinvention, The Short Drop and The Man on the Washing Machine

A short round up of some new releases this month include a tale of a 21st century Gatsby, a political thriller and a quirky San Francisco mystery.

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Famous New York attorney Sam Tahar is living the American Dream: handsome, successful and married to an elite socialite with two children, he appears to have it all.  But his success has been built on a lie he told many years ago.  While in law school he and his best friend Samuel both fall in love with Nina.  After Nina chooses Samuel over him he leaves Paris for America and adopts the life story and origins of his best friend.  When the three unite twenty years later Sam’s lie is revealed and his perfect life begins too unravel.

The Age of Reinvention, Washington Square Press, 416 pp.

 

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The fourteen year old daughter of a powerful United States senator disappears and an intense nationwide search is conducted to find her.  Despite the relentless national attention the young girl is never found.  Ten years later, the senator, now the vice president, has launched a campaign to run for president.  When new information about the girl’s disappearance is uncovered, Gibson Vaughn, a hacker, is convinced by the senator’s former head of security to help find the girl. Vaughn agrees and during his investigation uncovers a dangerous conspiracy deep within the senator’s family that threatens everyone.

The Short Drop, Thomas & Mercer, 397 pp.

 

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Theophania Bogart, a reformed party girl, escapes London after a high-profile family tragedy erupts and attempts to create a new life for herself in San Francisco.  She appears to have found the perfect hiding place amongst her quirky and eccentric neighbors but as soon she settles into her new digs a series of murders force her out of hiding.  When she decides to investigate, things quickly get complicated when she realizes she has unwittingly been helping a smuggling operation.  The police don’t believe her, even after she is knocked out and imprisoned, and to make matters worse, her best friend appears to be the prime suspect.

The Man on the Washing Machine, Minotaur Books, 304 pp.

 

 

 

 

Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware employs the murder at an English country estate device to a mostly satisfying effect in her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood.  In doing so, Ware creates a crazy quilt of characters and a plot that is part mystery and part thriller.  The mostly likable narrator, Nora, is a crime fiction writer living in London who receives an invitation to attend a “hen” –a kind of bachelorette party– being thrown for Claire, her childhood best friend.  The hen takes place at an isolated country house and, as Nora has not seen Claire in years due to an unspecified falling out, the stage is set for some obvious drama.  Shortly after arriving, Nora learns that Claire is going to marry Nora’s ex-boyfriend and the discomfort level quickly ratchets up to eleven.  To make things worse, Nora soon realizes that Flo, Claire’s friend who organized the hen, is mentally unstable.  Add to this a landline that inexplicably stops working, nonexistent cell phone reception, a mysterious set of footprints in the snow leading to the backdoor of the house and an unloaded shotgun over the fireplace and it is clear that something very bad is going to happen.

Although In a Dark, Dark Wood is the debut novel from Ruth Ware, she has experience in the publishing business and her knowledge is evident in both the structure and pacing of the novel.  Her prose is fluid and the pages fly by so quickly you will be tempted to read the book in one sitting.  Despite these strengths, the book is not without it’s problems.  You will almost certainly guess the murderer’s identity early on making you wonder why the narrator hasn’t figured this out too.  In the latter part of the book the narrator seems frustratingly obtuse about criminal investigations and engages in some behavior that feels suspiciously like plot manipulation.  These issues were not enough to make me want to fling the book against the wall in disgust but there was some serious eye rolling going on.  Still, the dialogue is sharp and although this is more a light mystery than a thriller, there are several moments of tension and outright fear that are well written.  Despite the plot problems I enjoyed this book in large part because of Ware’s writing and the interesting characters.  All in all a solid debut novel from an author I looked forward to following.

In a Dark, Dark Wood, Gallery/Scout Press, 320 pp., $26.00.

 

 

Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House, a series of five horror vignettes connected by a house as mysterious and evil as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, is a creepy homage to classic haunted house stories. The first section, “The Right Sort,” was originally published via 280 tweets over the course of a week. Mitchell then wrote an additional four sections and the resulting story has now been published as a proper novel. In the book, the narrators of each vignette unravel the secrets of the Grayer twins and their mysterious home, Slade House. Every nine years someone is drawn to Slade House, either by invitation or in an attempt to solve its mystery. After entering the grounds through a small, black iron door found in a narrow alley, each character is enticed to travel deeper into the house by the promised fulfillment of some deeply personal desire. After that, they are never seen again.

Mitchell does an admirable job creating distinctive voices for each of the five narrators which range from a thirteen year old boy with Asberger-like problems, to a racist DI, to an overweight and lovesick college student. You don’t have to be a particularly careful reader to guess what will happen to the narrators after reading the first vignette but each tale has enough twists to make you question whether they will somehow escape this fate. One particular weakness of the book is that the climatic scenes of each section often feel at odds with the carefully choreographed tension and creepy atmosphere built up by Mitchell. This results in reveals and dialogue that seem as though they belong in a very different type of horror novel. The final vignette, however, does provide a modicum of a twist and should please fans of the storyline interwoven by Mitchell throughout many of his novels, including The Bone Clocks and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It is not necessary, however, to have read those books to enjoy Slade House.