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British Mysteries

White Corridor, Christopher Fowler, Bantam, $24.00.

"My dear chap...everyone is younger and fitter than us. What have we got on our side? Decrepitude, mid-afternoon narcoleptic attacks, and ill-timed lapses of memory." - Bryant to May

I read Christopher Fowler's first Bryant and May novel, Full Dark House, and loved it, so I'm not sure why I haven't read the ones in between, but this latest installment is terrific and will probably send me into a frenzy of catching up. Fowler is one of the most distinctive mystery writers working at the moment - his two main characters, John May and Arthur Bryant, are on the older side and work out of the unorthodox Peculiar Crimes Unit in London, having first met during the Blitz (see Full Dark House). Nothing at the PCU is really done by the book; there's even a resident cat named Crippen, which gives you some of the flavor of Fowler's clever, funny, and richly peopled novels. In White Corridor Fowler, who also possesses the golden age skills required to put together a good puzzle mystery (while still using the contemporary addition of character development) poses not one, but two, locked room puzzles.

This is a great book to read during July because one of the locked room scenarios actually takes place during a raging snowstorm where cars have pulled off the highway - 25 of them are so - and are hopelessly stuck for the duration. Two of the people stuck are Bryant and May, who are constantly on their cell phones to the PCU which has its own puzzle at hand: the about to retire pathologist has been found dead in the morgue, an apparent murder victim. The only suspects are the members of the unit, and they are put under house arrest, while also being informed that they are to await a royal visit from a minor princess, nicknamed "Princess Poison". The royal visit is troubling because it could decide their future funding, and not only does Crippen have some odor issues, but the computer cables have all been ripped up and are lying all over the place. Meanwhile, though Bryant and May are comfortably tucked up in their car with plenty of food and blankets, they are forced to solve a crime closer at hand when a truck driver comes to their car and says he's found his passenger brutally murdered.

As Bryant and May work against the clock to help the PCU solve their crime before the royal visit (and release the staff from house arrest) they are also drawn into solving the case of the murdered man in the truck, while calling back to the unit themselves for background information on the various suspects they come up with. Helping them along is Maggie, the White Witch, who has figured in several of the other books as a spiritual force.

All this cleverness is balanced by a real skill with character development, and lots of thought provoking paragraphs like this one:

"The science of rationality is being pushed aside to make way for new superstitions. Look at the move to teach the mysteries of God's will beside Darwinism under the term "intelligent design", or the reliance on discredited homeopathic drugs to treat cancers we know to be caused by poor diet and cigarettes...the blurring of boundaries between greed and honesty. Through the proliferation of deliberately obscuring clutter, our access to hard information is being radically reduced. If you take away knowledge you create myth, not the old myths that help to underpin and elucidate the human condition, but ones with the more sinister purpose of increasing commercial gain."
This musing comes up when Bryant and May are sitting in their snow bound car discussing the perils of the internet and instant information. These novels are so rich, so funny, so detailed, and so clever that it's likely they will be re-read by their enthusiasts for years to come. The ingenious solution to both murders is just icing on what is already a very delicious cake.

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