Mysteries don’t come any more pleasurable these day than those of Bryant & May. THE WATER ROOM made me a fan so instantaneously, I had to get my hands on the previous two, FULL DARK HOUSE and SEVENTY-SEVEN CLOCKS. And now Christopher Fowler’s aging duo who head up London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit return for a fourth go-round in TEN SECOND STAIRCASE.
Set roughly a month after the soggy whodunit of THE WATER ROOM, this STAIRCASE finds Arthur Bryant and John May in dire straits. Though both of retirement age, their out-of-the-ordinary detective work is all they really have to live for, but their unorthodox methods have landed them in hot water with the higher-ups who threaten to close the division permanently. Then there’s the matter of “The Highwayman,” a V FOR VENDETTA-style masked, caped rogue whose murder of a pro-choice artist is something of a locked-room mystery, witnessed only – and partly at that – by a group of schoolboys touring the museum where her latest controversial installation is displayed.
Bryant and May are rightfully baffled, and the Highwayman becomes a bonafide serial killer with the next victim claimed. The men’s livelihood – and that of their fellow forensics and constables – hangs on solving the crime, which they race to do before the Highwayman becomes a celebrity in the eyes of London’s jaded youth. On top of that, May’s trying to ease his paranoid hermit of a granddaughter back into society, and there’s still the matter of the unsolved case of the Leicester Square Vampire…
Though it makes an excellent point about today’s spoiled generation (one character says kids today “can name a hundred brands but can’t tell you why it’s wrong to stab somebody”), let’s not forget that TEN SECOND STAIRCASE is, first and foremost, the year’s best pure mystery thus far. There are two main reasons. One is Bryant and May themselves. Though irascible and hard-headed, they’re also chicken-soup comfortable, and any adventure of theirs is a total delight to read. The other is Fowler’s skill at telling a story filled with twice as much suspense as it has humor. You find out the clues as Bryant and May do, yet they’re always a step or several ahead; thus, the resolution is always a surprise – something that can’t be said of most mysteries. Formulaic, Fowler is not.
All of STAIRCASE moves steadily, but its final 25 pages are near-breathless, like a ticking timebomb whose counter suddenly decided to speed up the remaining seconds tenfold. I’m dead-serious when I say I believe Fowler’s work will one day stand alongside Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie in terms of prestige. He’s simply that strong. Mystery fans have no reasonable excuse to ignore him – or his invaluable creations – any longer. –Rod Lott
OTHER BOOKGASM REVIEWS OF THIS SERIES:
• THE WATER ROOM by Christopher Fowler