Bryant & May: Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler is to London as Corby is to Ancient History in his Athenian Mystery Series. Fowler takes us on a very erudite and entertaining tour of British Literature, London, and the Thames through the character of Arthur Bryant. Bryant is the member of a unique police unit in London called the Peculiar Crimes Unit. They are headed by the very inept, Raymond Land, mon petit debile, mon petit crapaud, Bryant is the actual and official brain of the Unit along with his partner John May. The other members of the Unit include Janice Longbright, Dan Banbury, Giles Kershaw, Meera Mangeshkar, Colin Bimsley, and Fraternity DuCaine.
We witness the death of a woman, Lynsey Dalladay, on the banks of the Thames at night. It appears she has committed but the members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit to investigate it as a murder. She was pregnant and her boyfriend, Freddie Cooper is a prime suspect. One of the members of this unit, Longbright, explains their purpose best: “It’s not our job to understand why people do the things they do, Mr. Cooper. Even the well-intentioned ones can end up lying, and the best lies come when they’re finally convinced they’re telling the truth. People omit truths in order to ease their pain. We have to get the full story so that we can decide what to do.” It sounds like we all are members of this distinguished and peculiar group as we navigate our own lives.
I particularly love the times when Bryant is searching through literature with the likes of a Kirkpatrick or a Darcy Sarto and scans such tomes as Shakespeare’s First Folio or a Dickens novel for hints about the Thames and its power over people and the City of London. Bryant’s hallucinations about WWII and the blitzes of London are also illuminating if not troubling to poor suffering Arthur. Even his chat with Dickens is fantastic. Bryant is the clown to May’s straight man role. May holds the leash or so he thinks. “Arthur Bryant was getting better at evading his keepers.”
Other elucidating moments in this novel are the interactions with London historians like Audrey Beardsley, who would spend time relating the more esoteric historical facts of London and the Thames. The Thames becomes a character in this novel. “’What snakes through the heart of this investigation?’ Bryant continued, unconcerned about whether anyone was listening to him. “The Thames. The Silent Highway. Liquid history. Think about it, the livelihoods that depended on it, all the dock complexes, London and St Katherine’s, Commercial, India and Millwall, the Royals and Tilbury. Between them they took up an area of three thousand acres. Thirty miles of quays and dry docks. Think about the toshers, the mudlarks, the scuttle-hunters, the lumpsers –‘ ‘Nope,’ said May, ‘it’s gone.’”
The main subplot involves a recent illegal immigrant, Ali. Ali’s adventures to enter England are very sad and funny. He has special skills and hooks up with another wanderer, Cassie. They form different teams of entertainers to make money. Their misadventures are great sidebar stuff until they become entangled with the law, Bryant and May and The Peculiar Crimes Unit. Freddie Cooper, the ex boyfriend of the dead pregnant girl, Dalladay, is an investor to the pair’s latest scheme, Life Options. It turns out Ali slept with Freddie’s ex after they broke up. Cassie is concerned Ali may be the father. This will complicate things, if the police get involved with the pair. For Ali it is all about the money and he has the charms to extract it from the weak and susceptible. He is a snake and a con man.
More bodies are found in the Thames and the Unit is trying to find links and connections. The intrigue is kicked up a notch as we begin to sense the power of the river, the power of it as known by the Druids, Romans, and other inhabitants of the snake that slithers through London. The answer always lies in the money, follow the money and the solution will always be obvious.
The humor and dry wit have me in constant hysterics as I often have to reread passages just for the joy of the wit and sarcasm, “mon petit lecteur”.