ormally, I like to start at the beginning of a series. However, this
is the third book in the Bryant & May series, though it is the first one I read. I happened to see
it at the library, and impulsively checked it out.
Bryant and May are two cantankerous old detectives,
(though this installment is a throwback to their younger days - when they are in their 50's) who head
up London's Peculiar Crime Unit. They are assigned to the most bizarre cases.
The body count in this novel is high. Right from the start, a lawyer collapses
in the lobby of the Savoy hotel. Autopsy reveals that apparently he died of a venomous snake bite. A couple
of eccentric wealthy brothers - the Whitstables - are introduced, and both are quickly dispatched by grisly and bizarre
methods - just the type of quirky crimes that call in Bryant and May.
If I had read the first two (highly praised) books in this series, I might have had
a better appreciation for these characters, but I kept getting confused - which was Arthur Bryant and
which one is John May? One is supposed to long for the past, shunning the modern world (he keeps
losing his cellphone), collecting books. The other is fastidious and disciplined, embracing technology and
forensics. I think Bryant is the historian, and May is the modern guy, but I sorta got confused a lot in this
book. Not that it matters a whole lot.
A side thread to the story, concerning a hotel clerk named Jerry (Jerry is a she), doesn't
fare as well as the main plot. It is Jerry who first realizes there is something amiss with the snake bit lawyer
at the Savoy, it is Jerry who is first on the murder scene in the hotel barber shop. Jerry wants to involve herself
with the case, and offers to help the police. She even gathers some clues, but this side story peters out, her
detective work falls by the way side. The resolution of the Jerry thread is sorta lame.
The murders continue, and the crimes get more bizarre. Apparently, someone is out to
get the entire Whitstable clan. One woman perishes while watching the theater - analysis reveals that poison
was mixed into her makeup, which she reapplied at halftime. I think this novel is deliberately meant to
recall the Sherlock Holmes style of mysteries. If you think back, the Hound of the Baskervilles, the
Speckled Band, the Sign of Four - none of these plots is routine foul play solved with straightforward
detective work. Instead, they are bizarre crimes with nefarious villains - think Moriarity. Fowler is mining
this same vein. Especially at the climatic end, when all is revealed - this is not a plausible mystery,
it is escapist fare that would make a nice movie plot (think James Bond plausability.) I am not saying the
story is unenjoyable, I am merely commenting on the type of book that this is. More of an adventure yarn than
a police procedural. I liked it well enough that I will keep the Water Room, the first book in this series, on
my "to be read someday" book list.