Friday, May 17, 2013

Ten Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler

The Bryant & May series, written by Christopher Fowler, is about two elderly detectives who, even though they are well past retirement age, are the leading detectives in the Peculiar Crimes Unit in London. Ten Second Staircase is the fourth book in this series.

You ask what the Peculiar Crimes Unit is? From a memorandum in the first chapter of Ten Second Staircase:
The Peculiar Crimes Unit was founded, along with a handful of other specialist departments, soon after the outbreak of World War II, as part of a government initiative to ease the burden on London's overstretched Metropolitan Police Force, by tackling high-profile cases which had the capacity to compound social problems in urban areas. The crimes falling within its remit were often of a politically sensitive nature, or could potentially cause social panics and general public malaise.
If you want to know more about the detectives and their setting, there is a great description at the the author's website.

The first Bryant & May Mystery was Full Dark House. In that book, the setting alternates between London in the early 21st century and 1940's London, during the Blitz. There are two plot lines: the very first case that the two policemen worked together and the current case, obviously very late in their careers. The two cases seem to be connected.

I read Full Dark House in 2006 and it is one of the few mysteries I took the time to record my feelings about. This is what I said:
The two main characters are opposites and the joining of their contrary skills has resulted in the successful resolution of many cases over the years. This story emphasizes the growing pains associated with adjusting to the new relationship. At least at the beginning of the relationship, Bryant is the senior policeman and May is the new man in the department, although both of them are about the same age and very young. Both major and minor characters (of which there are many) have depth. A good read, one that has me looking forward to following future Bryant and May mysteries.
The second book in the series, The Water Room, involves an impossible murder by drowning and London’s system of underground rivers. In the third book, Seventy-Seven Clocks, several members of a family are murdered by various bizarre means in a case from 1973. It includes a crafts guild, Gilbert and Sullivan references, and I remember being thoroughly confused. I read those books in 2009.

And now we have arrived at of Ten Second Staircase. Here is a brief introduction from Goodreads:
It’s a crime tailor-made for the Peculiar Crimes Unit: a controversial artist is murdered and displayed as part of her own outrageous installation. No suspects, no motive, no evidence—but this time they do have an eyewitness. A twelve-year-old claims the killer was a cape-clad highwayman atop a black stallion. Whoever the killer really is, he seems intent on killing off enough minor celebrities to become one himself.
I enjoyed the beginning of the book because there were several elements that introduced the Peculiar Crimes Unit and the team and gave some background. Since I had not read the series for a while, this was welcome. The first chapter is a memorandum from the Acting Head of the unit (who has been acting head since 1973) to the Home Office Liaison Officer explaining his concerns about Bryant and May and the unit. John May's granddaughter joins the unit and gets an introduction to the varied staff. Then Bryant gives a speech to a group of teenaged students, which provides even more background. And sets up one of the premises of the novel, the divide between youth and adults.

The Bryant & May series has many good points. The author uses historical facts and actual locations in London in his stories. He highlights social issues. In my opinion, though, the characterizations and the relationships in the novel are the best feature; the people are complex and don't always act as you expect them to.

I like the police procedural aspects also. Although Bryant is known for his desire to look for supernatural elements and use witches and mysticism in his quest for the truth, the unit has and uses forensics and computer expertise.

I found myself bogged down in the middle of the story and getting quite frustrated. I have read books that kept me interested all the way through then fell flat at the end. This one was the opposite. It had a "wow" finish. May's granddaughter, April, who seemed like a throwaway character, becomes real and interesting. All the seemingly disparate threads pulled together to give me a sense of closure.

This book explores the tension between youth (teens, in this case) and older adults, and the difficulties of a changing society. That is putting it very simply, and of course the book does a much better job of getting this across. Such divides have always existed, but with two elderly detectives, the author can use his characters and setting to reveal what we may not see in our everyday lives.

I recommend the series if you have not given it a try. Some readers find them very funny. I find them darker, although I applaud Christopher Fowler for focusing on the ills of society. I introduced these books to my son, and he has read the first eight books. He keeps pushing me to read more of them. I have recommended this series to my husband, because of the emphasis on buildings in London. He has read Rune, by the same author, which features Bryant and May (as secondary characters?) and could be considered the first book in the series.  He enjoyed it very much.

Note the differences in the two covers I feature. These are scans of the covers of my copies of the books.  I paid a pretty penny years ago to get a UK cover of the first book ... because I loved the cover so much. My copy of Ten Second Staircase is a trade paperback edition published in the US. I find the UK covers much superior.

Here are some other good posts on Bryant and May mysteries:
In the Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...
A review of the 10th book in the series at Pretty Sinister Books.

26 comments:

  1. This was the book that got me into the series, Tracy, and I have very fond memories of it. The series as a whole has waxed and waned a bit in my affections, as the balance between character, plot and humour has shifted away from my personal preferred emphasis at times, but I'm very much looking forward to the latest additions to the series.

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    1. Puzzle Doctor, I feel the same way about the series, although for different reasons. Sometimes the plots are two complex and meandering to keep my attention, but I admire Christopher Fowler and his writing very much.

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  2. Thanks for bringing this to notice. Now I'll look around for these books.

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    1. Neer, I hope you find one. The series is definitely worth a try and it doesn't matter much where you start.

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  3. I really need to read this series but have so many books...I need a system or something, lol.

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    1. Keishon, I sympathize. I keep adding to my wishlist (but not in an organized way) and switching priorities in my TBR piles.

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    2. Since I read your review, I found that I bought a copy of The Water Room a long time ago. Do these need to be read in order? I put it on my reading list to keep it in mind because I've wanted to read them. Sometimes I forget what books I've bought and not all of my ebooks on my reader but in the cloud (where I found The Water Room).

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    3. Keishon, I think you can read them in any order. I have read them in order, but many reviewers started in the middle and were very happy with them.

      I too have no way of tracking what I have bought for Kindle (other than the cloud) and have got to either create a Google doc or put them in my cataloging system ... and I am behind on cataloging "real" books.

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  4. That's for the link to my review, Tracy. I'm not such a fan of this one. I didn't like the solution to the mystery of the vanishing cloaked figure. I thought it was a big cop out though it makes perfect sense in the context of the story. I guess I wasn't in the mood for rebellious teens when I was reading it. I remember being irritated by their antics and their smart mouths. I tend to like the more bizarrely plotted ones and this was rather tame compared to SEVENTY SEVEN CLOCKS which I loved for its multiple layers, the history of the guilds and the intricate plot.

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    1. John, I agree with your opinion about the teens in this book. I don't see much of this in my own life, but I don't live in a large urban area. As for Seventy Seven Clocks, I think my brain is not wired for intricate plots (even though I am a database programmer). Maybe my brain is looking for more restful pursuits away from work.

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  5. Tracy - First, thanks very much for the kind mention. One of the things I like about this series is the unit itself and the interactions among its members. You can really see how they depend on each other on more than one level. And you're right; Fowler is skilled at taking innovative approaches to different themes. I like that original turn of mind. Thanks for the fine review.

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    1. Thank you, Margot. Your spotlight posts are great for introducing someone to a series without spoilers. In this book, it was interesting how I could see the change in the characters; complaining about their jobs but in the end loyal to the unit and the job. Like normal people.

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    1. Peggy, they are fun, aren't they? I hope to read the next one in the series some time soon.

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  7. Tracy, you've just inched the 2nd in the series a bit higher up the pile! OCD freak that I am I'm probably going to have to look out for Rune as well now! The UK covers are great for the series.
    Thanks for the great review.

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    1. Col, I agree, you should look out for Rune. It sounds like your kind of book. I initially did not want to read it because of the horror elements, but I just read a description that made it sound very enticing. I plan to read it someday myself.

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  8. Tracy, I accept your recommendation without reservation because a friend of mine has been insisting that I read his books which are available in bookstores out here. I didn't know his novels were so popular.

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    1. Prashant, I think you would like the books in this series. You seem to be a deliberate reader that would like all the details. It is surprising to me the variety of readers who like this series.

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  9. I've just received the latest book in this series. I read book 1, which I liked, and now I'm going to jump to the latest. Hopefully I'll be able to pick up the thread.

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    1. Sarah, Having not gotten that far in the series, I would just be guessing. But I think that each stands alone ... enough to enjoy that way. Except for possibly the first one, I have found the others confusing (just me I am sure), but worth the effort.

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    2. Sounds like a series I should check out. I love a "wow" ending, even if the middle is a little blah. And the whole set-up sounds interesting.

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    3. Carol, the set-up is interesting and unusual. I think you would like them.

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  10. I had no idea there were so many in this series! I read the first one ages ago, and was aware more had been published, but obviously not aware enough. Perhaps I should try to catch up.

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    1. Moira, I bet you would like them. Lots of details on London, and buildings, and clothes.

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  11. This is one of my favourite series just because there's so much wonderful information about London. I didn't know about Rune and must get my mitts on the book - thank you!

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    1. Sakura, I bet it is especially fun to read books set in the city you live in. I wish I could visit London. I hope you find a copy of Rune.

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