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British Mysteries

Full Dark House, Christopher Fowler, Bantam, $13.00.

"The Sherlock Holmes method of detection no longer works; logic is fading...there is madness in the very air."

This is one of the more unusual and engaging mysteries I've read recently; I'm a big fan of British police novels, and this one is a slightly new twist on that familiar formula. Beginning in the present with a bomb explosion, the novel then backtracks to London during the Blitz, and focuses on the "Peculiar Crimes Unit" - staffed by unorthodox individualists, starting at the top with Arthur Bryant, someone whose idea of goosing a colleague to his best work is leaving a poisonous plant in his office. This isn't as obnoxious as it sounds; it merely highlights the unrelenting eccentricity (and also brilliance) of central character Bryant, who is freshly seen through the eyes of his longtime partner John May. May joins Peculiar Crimes as a fresh 19 year old to veteran Bryant's 23 and their investigation is a learning experience for both of them; because there's a war on, the young and inexperienced were given chances they might not have otherwise have had. The story is also told from the perspective of the now 80 year old May - he's investigating the opening bomb attack, whose victim, apparently, is Arthur Bryant. It's a complicated way to tell a story, but in the hands of the talented Christopher Fowler, it's an extremely enjoyable one.

Bryant and May's first case takes place in that hoariest of mystery conventions, the theater, but Fowler is able to inject a good deal of originality into this old formula as Bryant and May are increasingly perplexed by a horrific series of murders that couldn't be more "locked room". It's this combination of classic tropes with a more modern sensibility and explication of events that make this novel so unique. The other wonderful thing about it is the evocation of London during the Blitz - for all I've read and seen about that time period, this was one of the more vivid descriptions I've ever read, making the day to day life of Londoners living through relentless bombing incredibly real and heartbreaking at the same time.

Seemingly effortlessly, Fowler is able to convey the confusion and fear of the young Bryant and May, as well as the sadness of the 80 year old May at losing his old friend and partner. The world of the theater in wartime London is also compellingly told; it's populated with theatrical ghosts, nervous directors, and cranky and eccentric financial backers, all of whom, at one time or another, seem incredibly sinister. The characters of the two men at the center of the story are so interesting - and so satisfyingly opposite (think Dalziel and Pascoe) - that the desire to read a second book featuring these two men will probably be a strong one for any reader who loves the British mystery in all its wonderful variations.

Complicated, often funny, and frequently illuminating, this is a wonderful first novel that is both informed by classics of the past and makes its own path as something slightly newer and just as delightful.

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