Source: Review copy
Publication: 31 Oct. 2019 from Doubleday
The Peculiar Crimes Unit has solved many extraordinary cases over the years, but some were hushed up and hidden away. Until now. Arthur Bryant remembers these lost cases as if they were yesterday. Unfortunately, he doesn’t remember yesterday, so the newly revealed facts could come as a surprise to everyone, including his exasperated partner John May.
Here, then, is the truth about the Covent Garden opera diva and the seventh reindeer, the body that falls from the Tate Gallery, the ordinary London street corner where strange accidents keep occurring, the consul’s son discovered buried in the unit’s basement, the corpse pulled from a swamp of Chinese dinners, a Hallowe’en crime in the Post Office Tower, and the impossible death that’s the fault of a forgotten London legend. All of the unit’s oddest characters are here, plus the detectives’ long-suffering sergeant Janice Longbright gets to reveal her own forgotten mystery.
These twelve crimes must be solved without the help of modern technology, mainly because nobody knows how to use it. Expect misunderstood clues, lost evidence, arguments about Dickens, churches, pubs and disorderly conduct from the investigative officers they laughingly call ‘England’s Finest’!
I have wanted to read a Bryant and May book for ages, so snapped up this as soon as I was offered the chance to review. England’s Finest is a terrific introduction to the wonderful, idiosyncratic world of Arthur Bryant and John May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit.
A foreword, written by the straight-laced and somewhat out of his depth PCU Bureau Chief Raymond Land, introduces you to all the key characters and prepares you for a series of adventures that could only be English (and certainly not Scots, Irish or even Welsh).
These are stories in which the people and places of London have a starring role and where the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. Our seriously old duo, curmudgeonly Bryant and somewhat more suave May, wend their way through the streets solving crimes with a combination of logic, insight and the aid of an assortment of weird and wonderful characters from white witches and clairvoyants to Turkish plumbers called Dave.
Here timelines are something of a fluid thing; it’s never easy to work out which decade we might be in, not least because our eponymous duo eschew the trappings of modern day technology (though May at least makes an effort) and are both so old that time is a concept rather than an actuality. Bryant is constantly underestimating and mansplaining at the fabulous and long-suffering Sergeant Janice Longbright and the verbal sparring of this pair is one of the real delights in this collection of short stories.
Fowler blends the classic police procedural with a tinge of golden age mystery, making for a series of fascination, unputdownable and somewhat bizarre crimes, told in stylish prose with wit and charm.
Among the treats in England’s Finest is a crime in the Post Office Tower in which the suspects are Michael Caine, Bruce Forsyth and Mary Quant; a mystery about an ordinary London street corner where strange accidents keep occurring and the body of the Consul’s son is discovered buried in the PCU basement with the answer seemingly lying in a biography of Marcel Duchamp. ‘Urban madness is our trade’, says Bryant as he sets out to solve yet another arcane mystery in which human nature is always the key.
These fabulous stories which show a certain disdain for some of today’s most rampant consumerist trends, are wrapped in glorious cover art to treasure.
Verdict: Black comedy, smart puzzles and fabulous eccentric and quirky characterisation all combine with a fantastic London backdrop to offer a brilliant smorgasbord of elegant, intelligent stories to savour.
Christopher Fowler is the author of more than forty novels (sixteen of which feature the detectives
Bryant and May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit) and many short story collections. A multiple award-
winner, including the coveted CWA ‘Dagger in the Library’, Chris has also written screenplays, video
games, graphic novels, audio plays and two acclaimed memoirs, Paperboy and Film Freak. His most
recent non-fiction book is The Book of Forgotten Authors. Chris divides his time between London’s
King’s Cross and Barcelona. You can find out more by visiting his website and following him on
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