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.
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.
The Grownup is a melange of a classic Jamesian ghost story with a modern psychological tale reminiscent of Flynn’s prior novel, Gone Girl. At 64 pages, the book occupies that no man’s land between short story and novella but manages to pack some very interesting characters into that short space. First published in George R.R. Martin’s Rogues under the title “What Do You Do?,” it tells the story of a young, unnamed narrator who starts work as a beggar with her one-eyed mother before becoming a “therapist” that gives hand jobs to customers in the back room of a psychic’s shop. She is a small-time, streetwise grifter that has a knack for reading people and then taking advantage of them. When her carpel tunnel syndrome prevents her from continuing to work as a “therapist,” she is forced to move to the front of the shop to work as a clairvoyant. It is there she meets Susan Burke, a rich mother with two children and a serious problem. Susan and her family have just moved in to Carterhook Manor, a creepy Victorian mansion that Susan believes may be haunted and may have possessed her stepson, Miles. She hires the young con artist to cleanse the house and the woman agrees anticipating a profitable and easy job.
When the narrator visits the house, however, she soon suspects she may have underestimated both the ease of the job and the severity of the problem. Susan’s psychological and physical conditions have deteriorated and her stepson, Miles, is far from a normal teenage boy. The first part of the of the story builds nicely to some very disturbing scenes and reaches a frightening climax when the narrator finally realizes she is in over her head and tries to escape. Problems with the story begin to surface, though, when the explanation for these hauntings is finally revealed. Flynn takes the reader a little too firmly by the hand during the reveal and provides an almost clinical explanation of the events which only deflates the sense of horror built up to that point. This results in a story that feels rushed and an additional twist at the end that feels less inventive and more like Flynn couldn’t decide between two different storylines. And while the usual writing advice is to cut more rather than add more, I think the story would have been well served by the addition of another ten to twenty pages. That said, I enjoyed the ironic fate of the narrator and Flynn does a good job of blending modern characters into the framework of the classic ghost story.
The Grownup, Crown Publishers, 64 pp., $5.99.
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.