Bryant and May: Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler – Book Review [Bane of Kings]
Bane of Kings reviews the first novel in the Bryant and May series by Christopher Fowler, published by Bantam Books. It’s a crime novel that was first released in 1994.
“An enjoyable crime novel, with an interesting setting of London during World War Two, Full Dark House is a novel that historical crime fans will find engaging, if flawed.”
Do you ever get the feeling, particularly when the book’s been out for a while (In this case, 16 years), that you should have heard of the author before? Well, that’s the feeling that I got when reading Full Dark House, the first installment in the eight-book long Bryant and May series, about a team of detectives operating in second world war London (or at least, in book one). It’s an interesting premise, particularly as the only WW2-era novel that I’ve read before is Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose (and that was only half of it, I think, and I’m not sure if I still have a copy of it, It’s either somewhere in the house or in Germany where I remember reading it on a trip). Full Dark House also informs the reader about what it’s like to be living in London during the bombing, as well as what the police were tasked with during the time, making the novel interesting for the reader particularly if that reader is a fan of historical fiction (like me), as well as appealing to crime fans.
A present-day bombing rips through London and claims the life of eighty-year-old detective Arthur Bryant. For John May, it means the end of a partnership that lasted over half-a-century and an eerie echo back to the Blitz of World War II, when they first met. Desperately searching for clues to the killer’s identity, May finds his old friend’s notes of their very first case and becomes convinced that the past has returned…with a killing vengeance.
It was an investigation that plunged the fledgling detectives into a complex and lethal puzzle. It began when a dancer in a risque new production of Orpheus in Hell was found without her feet. In a city shaken by war, a faceless killer was stalking London’s theaters, creating his own kind of sinister drama. And it will take Arthur Bryant’s most unorthodox techniques and John May’s dogged police work to catch a criminal whose ability to escape detection seems almost supernatural – a murderer who even decades later seems to have claimed the life of one of them…and is ready to claim the other.
The main characters are obviously John May and Arthur Bryant. Both are compelling, if a tad eccentric, but they still manage to be believable characters, which is part of the reasons why Full Dark House works as well as it did. May and Bryant are different enough so they don’t feel like carbon-copies of each other, and they’re captivating characters and Fowler writes in a way that makes you want to discover more about them. Full Dark House reminded me of the Sherlock Holmes/John Watson partnership of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s novels, with May being Watson and Bryant being Holmes. However, whilst the four characters share certain similarities, they are very different people. For instance, Sherlock Holmes was set before the first world war, whilst Full Dark House takes place in the modern-day era (not quite 2012, as mentioned above, this novel was first published in 1994) with flashbacks to the Second World War, which take up a large chunk of the novel. In fact, the WW2 flashbacks are the core of the novel, and we spend very little time in the modern-day era.
Whilst the flashbacks are a great way to tell the story, and Fowler clearly did not make the novel up as he went along, there was no clear divider to inform me when we were in the present or when we were in 1940. All we get is Chapter breaks, no “London, 1940” stapled at the beginning of the Chapter, which is what I believe this book could have benefited from, as occasionally I found myself starting chapters still thinking that I was in wartime London rather than the present, even though it became obvious after a couple of paragraphs.
The historical fiction-aspect of Fowler’s Full Dark House is excellent, as the author manages to capture the gritty realism of war-torn London. As far as I’m aware, the historical aspect of this book is accurate, and it reads like a historical-fiction/mystery novel which drew me in and although it may not be as fast as James Patterson’s novels, it is certainly a higher quality and a fun murder-mystery. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will enjoy Bryant and May’s first outing, and this is one of the many reasons why I prefer to read a series in order rather than jump right in at the deep end – as I’m a huge fan of origin stories. I liked Iron Man over Iron Man 2, and I preferred X-Men: First Class to the X-Men Trilogy. (One of the few exceptions are the Star Wars prequels, which I didn’t like as much as the original movies, and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, where I preffered Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises to the first film).
The action is believable, and Fowler manages to develop the characters over the course of the novel to make sure that Bryant and May don’t stay as one-dimensional, making it interesting to see how they will develop over the next few novels, which I will do my best to buy when I can.
Whilst Full Dark House was entertaining, it was not entirely perfect either, and sadly the time-difference thing mentioned above is not the only issue that I had with Bryant and May’s first outing. The book was too long for me. I know, I’ve read the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, but that’s not what I mean. When I say the book was too long for me, I mean that the novel dragged on a bit for my liking, and the author could have easily dropped a quarter of the novel’s size.
Bryant and May Series: Full Dark House, The Water Room, Seventy-Seven Clocks, Ten Second Staircase, White Corridor, The Victoria Vanishes, Bryant & May on the Loose, Bryant & May off the Rails, Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood, Bryant and May and the Invisible Code (2 August 2012)