Bryant & May: Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler. (Detective/Mystery Novel, 2016).
The latest book in this long-running series finds the allegedly elite team known as the Peculiar Crimes Unit headed for disaster. For all their past successes, they’ve always depended on aging detective Arthur Bryant’s eccentric brilliance, tempered by his steady partner John May, to solve the complex and near-impossible crimes modern-day London has a habit of dropping in their collective laps.
The latest case opens with the drowning of a rich but troubled young woman–found chained and left to drown beside the storied River Thames.
Unfortunately, Bryant is acting even weirder and more unpredictable than usual. He gives every indication of rapidly advancing senility–and he’s begun suffering bizarre hallucinations, to boot. And as the number of inexplicable deaths–all linked in some way to the odd tidal forces of the fabled river–begin to pile up, a bewildered May finds himself a suspect in one of the later killings.
Maybe the time has come for other members of the PCU to step up?
Alas, they just aren’t up to it.
Their Unit Chief, Raymond Land, is useless–except as a sterling example of the kind of not-too-bright and utterly ineffective boss that countless unconventional fictional detectives have had to endure (and often circumvent) to solve their cases.
The remaining half-dozen specialists serving with the PCU are a competent enough bunch and interesting people in their own right, but hardly brilliant. And of course there’s pressure from vengeful higher ups who are itching to get rid of what they see as a threatening rogue branch of the London police.
Let’s be brutally honest here: All this is pretty much standard issue stuff, both for this series and for a whole sub-genre of mystery novels. The things that stand out in Fowler’s accomplished writing are his gifts for offbeat characters, his wit (even as he’s seemingly failing, Bryant gets off plenty of amusing zingers–many aimed squarely at the ever-befuddled Land) and all the fascinating London lore and color Fowler lovingly provides.
Early on we’re introduced to a refugee turned on-the-make Londoner whose determined efforts to strike it rich will obviously be a key to unraveling the string of bewildering murders. Is he the ultimate villain–or the reddest of red herrings?
I’m not telling–and neither is Fowler, till the twisty end (which proved very satisfying to me). And what is causing old Arthur Bryant’s problems? Is it treatable? Will he recover?And what of the weird visions his still-vibrant subconscious keep peppering him with?
Rest assured, our cantankerous hero will find a way to solve the puzzle–and all in his own offbeat style. The baffling and convoluted case will indeed be solved.
The bureaucratic threat from above will also be averted. The hapless Land even comes through in the latter event–although his ‘contribution’ has very little to do police activity, by-the-book or otherwise.
This is another fun crime story from Fowler, with plenty of twists and turns. And we haven’t seen the last of these characters–he’s already working on yet another PCU novel.