Full Dark House

Christopher Fowler

The first novel in a riveting mystery series starring two cranky but brilliant old detectives whose lifelong friendship was forged solving crimes for the London Police Department's Peculiar Crimes Unit.

 

In Full Dark House, Christopher Fowler tells the story of both their first and last case and how along the way the unlikely pair of crime fighters changed the face of detection.

A present-day bombing rips through London and claims the life of eighty-year-old detective Arthur Bryant. For his partner John May, it means the end of a partnership that lasted over half-a-century and an eerie echo back to the Blitz of World War II when they first met. Desperately searching for clues to the killer's identity, May finds his old friend's notes of their very first case and becomes convinced that the past has returned...with a killing vengeance.

 

Filled with startling twists, unforgettable characters, and a mystery that will keep you guessing, Full Dark House is a witty, heartbreaking, and all-too-human thriller about the hunt for an inhuman killer.

Arthur Bryant and John May have very different mindsets and approaches to solving crimes (more on that shortly).

Both though are members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), which was set up in 1940 to investigate crimes that the regular police detective teams couldn’t make much progress in solving. The two men have been the main members of the PCU since that time, so they have a long history together. When Bryant decides to write his memoirs, he makes a shocking discovery about the first PCU case and begins to investigate. Shortly after he starts asking questions, a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices and takes Bryant with it.

Now his grieving partner decides to deal with his loss by finding out who set the bomb that killed Arthur Bryant. To do that, May will have to go back to the 1940 Palace Phantom case, the case that Bryant was following up on when the blast occurred. That story, which Fowler tells in tandem with the modern day investigation, starts with the murder of Tanya Capistrania, who was to have a solo part in the Palace Theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus. The victim’s feet have been removed and although they’re found later, it’s an unusual kind of a crime – exactly the kind the PCU was set up to investigate. Bryant and May are just beginning to look into the case when there’s another death. French actor Charles Senechal, who was to play the role of Jupiter in the production, is killed in what looks like a horrible accident with scenery. Then there’s another death. And a disappearance. It’s obvious that someone wants very badly to close down Orpheus and Bryant and May and their team members are under a lot of pressure to solve the case before any more mayhem occurs.

This is a police procedural, so there’s an emphasis on collecting and making sense of evidence, following leads, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. There’s also a strong element of police politics running through the novel. The PCU is not exactly a choice assignment. It was originally set up to maintain public morale during the worst of the Blitz, the idea being that strange and ‘unsolvable’ crimes would lead to hysteria at a time when the public most needed to stay calm. However it’s not highly regarded and its members are constantly under ‘surveillance’ by the Powers That Be. In fact, one of its members Sidney Biddle was specifically assigned to keep tabs on the other team members and report to the top brass about them. And yet, the (dare I say it) scrappy, badly-underfunded little unit does prove itself.

There is also a strong element of atmosphere and setting in this novel. Readers are placed clearly in two Londons. One is the London of 1940, under siege by the Blitz, subject to real privation and rationing and coping with awful losses, both human and structural. Fowler doesn’t get gruesome, but neither does he sugarcoat the terrible toll that World War II took on London. The other London is the modern-day London of 21st Century technology, drugs gangs, diversity and the realities of today’s economics. It too is exciting and dangerous, but it is not the London that Bryan and May knew as young men.

Readers also get a strong sense of life in the theatre. The building itself is the scene for several of the events that happen, and it’s suitably mysterious, full of secrets and history and sometimes really creepy. We follow along as the 1940 cast, crew and front-office staff members gather together, rehearse, prepare for the opening of the production and deal with the large and small disasters that go along with any theatre production. I know it’s cliché, but in this case it’s fitting: the theatre really is a character in this novel.

You couldn’t at all call this novel a light, upbeat story. But there is a thread of sometimes sarcastic humour woven through it, and some darkly funny moments too.

Perhaps the strongest element in this novel is the partnership between the very different Arthur Bryant and John May. Bryant is by just about anyone’s standards eccentric, to say the least. He reads up on mythology, witchcraft, and arcane studies. He has a strange sense of humour and doesn’t care much how he dresses. He counts mediums among his friends and is happy to consider even the most unlikely explanation for a murder. In fact in this case he goes off on a very mistaken tangent at one point. But he’s easy to underestimate. He’s smart, shrewd and a good judge of character and in the end, he out-thinks the killer. For his part, John May thinks logically and uses evidence to lead him to a theory. He doesn’t have much truck with superstition or mythology and he has a rather orderly mind. He’s what some people call well-grounded. But he too is easy to underestimate. He’s a quick thinker and quite capable of taking suspects and witnesses by surprise. The two men really complement one another. At the beginning of their partnership each is a little awkward with the other. But as the years go by, they form a deep friendship despite the fact that they’re very different.

The mysteries themselves – both the modern-day case and the 1940 case – are believable once one understands the motives.

Full Dark House is a uniquely London story featuring an unusual crime unit and two likeable sleuths. It’s got a pair of mysteries that are not obvious, a really unexpected twist at the end, and effective use of sarcastic wit and dark humour.

Review by Margot Kinberg, Confessions of a Mystery Writer

About Christopher Fowler:

Christopher Fowler is an English novelist living in London, his books contain elements of black comedy, anxiety and social satire. As well as novels, he writes short stories, scripts, press articles and reviews.

He lives in King's Cross, on the Battlebridge Basin, and chooses London as the backdrop of many of his stories because any one of the events in its two thousand year history can provide inspiration.

In 1998 he was the recipient of the BFS Best Short Story Of The Year, for 'Wageslaves'. Then, in 2004, 'The Water Room' was nominated for the CWA People's Choice Award, 'Full Dark House' won the BFS August Derleth Novel of The Year Award 2004 and 'American Waitress' won the BFS Best Short Story Of The Year 2004. The novella 'Breathe' won BFS Best Novella 2005.