Wild Chamber, by Christopher Fowler

wild chamber

What a comfort reading is during this dark time! There is much to be afraid of and loved ones to be afraid for, but it’s important to take a break sometimes, be somewhere else for a while.

I’ve been reading Fowler’s Bryant and May detective series in order. The two head up the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a division of the London police formed during WWII to handle cases that could cause public unrest. Persisting into the present, it operates like no police department you’ve ever encountered and is constantly under threat of closure by traditional-minded administrators.

Arthur Bryant has his own methods which involve consulting museum curators, white witches, and his own offbeat but strangely useful collection of reference books. He’s a bit of a trickster, with a sly sense of humor. Having more depth than the typical English eccentric, I’ve come to delight in the odd turns his thinking takes, even odder as he ages and others begin to suspect the beginnings of dementia.

John May’s reputation as a ladies’ man has taken a bit of a beating as he ages. With a more logical approach to solving crimes, he tries to protect his friend from his wilder flights and is the only one who stands up to him.

The other members of the PCU are, well, characters in the sense of being unique, believable, yet a little quirky. For instance, Janice Longbright is enamored of the style of 50’s screen actresses—makeup, heels, hair, clothes, the whole shebang—but not terribly practically for chasing suspects down dark alleys.

In this outing, Bryant and May are investigating the murder of a woman in one of London’s parks and gardens, originally called (at least once) its “wild chambers”. This garden is in an exclusive crescent, so it’s kept locked with only residents having access. How could a killer have gotten in? Where is her missing husband? And what does her murder have to do with one of Bryant and May’s cases a year earlier?

Since I’m unable to go to England this spring as planned, I especially relished the way the investigation led through many of London’s parks and gardens, calling up sweet memories for me.

In fact, London is the real protagonist of this series. The solution to the crimes almost always hinges on Bryant’s arcane knowledge of London’s past, whether it’s the history of Bedlam, the routes of lost underground rivers, or forgotten details about St. Pancras Old Church and King’s Cross.

Interestingly, Bryant and May is also the name of London-based company that ran match factories in the 19th century before being absorbed by other companies.

These two detectives would fit perfectly into a Golden Age mystery, though their stories are a bit darker than those standards. The stories don’t really fit into the various subcategories of mystery. Bryant and May aren’t amateurs, but the stories aren’t police procedurals—unless you’re willing to accept a perfectly wacky procedure. They aren’t cosies exactly, but neither are they grim crime novels. What they are is delicious. Funny, infectious, knowledgeable about human nature and London’s long history: the perfect vacation.

What are you reading? Does it give you rest, comfort or courage?

2 thoughts on “Wild Chamber, by Christopher Fowler

  1. Nichael Cramer says:

    For several years my favorite “get-away-from-it-all” books or “comfort reads” (although I hate to use terms like this, because it makes them sound lame, like so much fluffy candy, which they most definitely are not –but you know what I mean…) are books by Alexander McCall Smith.

    Probably he’s best known for “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series” books. But he also has written several other series (such as the “44 Scotland Street” series; the “Isabel Dalhousie / Sunday Philosophy Club” series; the “Detective Varg” series; the “Portuguese Irregular Verbs” series, etc) and many “standalone” novels (including several children’s book).

    For me, his books are perfect “A Chapter Before Bedtime” books. Besides their being imbued with a gentle, quite, lovely humor, readers of McCall Smith’s books have the added blessing that he is incredibly proficient.

    A problem I often face with “favorite” writers is that if I’m tempted to rush through everything the author has written I then find myself in the quandary of waiting for something new to come along (A bit of a problem with an author like, say, Proust….) But with McCall Smith, it seems like a rare month that goes by in which he doesn’t publish a new book.

    (As a specific example, the first volume in the “44 Scotland Street” appeared in the Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh as *daily* installments over a six-month period, written in close to real time.)

    Also, because of the popularity of his books many libraries have complete (or near-complete) runs of his books making it easy (read: “cheap”) to find copies.

    But probably my absolute, never fail go-to source here is in the stories of Wendell Berry (the two largest collections are “That Distant Land” and “A Place in Time”).

    In this case I have these collections as audio-books. And on those nights when I can’t sleep (or, perhaps better, when the world is keeping me awake) I know I can always put these wonderful stories on and get away for a while.

    • barbara says:

      Great minds! I’m currently listening to the Isabel Dalhousie series. You’re so right that they are perfect bedtime reading. And I just started reading Wendell Berry’s novels last October–I’m trying to space them out to make them last. They are just right for this difficult time.

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