Saturday, January 2, 2010

Full Dark House

by Christopher Fowler

Arthur Bryant and John May, two young police detectives, meet during the Blitz of London when May joins the Peculiar Crimes Unit.  Bryant’s unusual methods (contacting mediums, thinking largely in symbolism) and his unsettling social skills rankle May, but soon their personalities and strategies mesh.  They investigate a string of gruesome, perhaps symbolic, murders at the Palace Theatre, during a scandalous production of Offenbach’s “Orpheus In the Underworld.”  Meanwhile, in present-day London, an explosion at the unit takes the now elderly Bryant’s life, and May traces his old partner’s footsteps, trying to find out who killed him, and how in connects to their first case.

It’s a beguiling setup, very richly atmospheric, especially the 1940 scenes, which are clearly researched to the tiniest detail (brands of cigarettes, how women wore their hair, and so on).  While I took the “big twist” at the end pretty much for granted throughout the book (what, the main character isn’t really dead?), other twists and turns were highly enjoyable.  All the little hints and witty touches come together: Fowler plays fair with the reader, but this is much more a moody thriller than a whodunit, though it succeeds at both.  

four stars

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