Seventy-Seven Clocks by Christopher Fowler is a detective mystery featuring his regular pairing of policemen Arthur Bryant and John May.
Without giving too much of the plot away, at its heart are seventy-seven clocks deployed in an extravagant burst of megalomania which is redolent of James Bond villains at their very best. Credibility is certainly stretched by the conceit which powers the book’s crime wave but it is a mystery book of the tradition that does not rely on magic or superstition to explain away apparently impossible situations.
It is, however, a mystery in the Sherlock Holmes rather than Ellery Queen sense in that there is no trail of subtle clues which the observant reader can follow to unpick the mystery ahead of the storyline’s crimefighters. Instead, dramatic new information is regularly added to a plot that can only be worked out as it unfurls.
The book is a rewrite of an earlier version in which supernatural elements featured. One reason for Christopher Fowler to rewrite the book was that “as any mystery reader knows, resorting to the impossible is not playing fair”. Traces of supernatural horror in the style of Edgar Allan Poe remain aplenty in the book, giving it an added tension, particularly in the excellent audio version.
The story is deeply rooted in the London of the 1970s, with many topical and geographic references. The coincidence of much of the book happening near where I grew up in London gave it an extra appeal, though also highlighted one or two cases where the London setting is not quite accurate. Anyone who had pondered running down Hampstead Tube Station’s 320 steps, for example, will surely doubt whether policemen would eagerly rush down them – and catch someone who had started in a lift at the same time as them no less.
Those small quibbles aside, it is enjoyable to read a detective mystery so firmly rooted in Britain rather than yet another one located somewhere in America, however well executed the American plot may be. (This is, you may have noticed, somewhat of a theme of mine.)
Fowler, unusually for many mystery writers, portrays police politics, the workings of the media and even wider politics with a deft and plausible touch. Journalists and politicians are not saints in the book, but neither are they the 2D cartoon caricatures that too many authors lazily deploy. The references to Margaret Thatcher near the book’s end may appear to strike a rather implausibly coy note, but actually do reflect what many people thought at the time.
The book has a wide and rich cast of characters, often quickly enlivened with vivid turns of phrase, such as Arthur Bryant’s physical appearance being firmly sketched with the economical reference to him looking “like a jumble sale on a stick”. The characters combine in a fast-paced plot that has action, tension and character development a plenty. It starts with a curious murder in the Savoy Hotel which Scotland Yard’s Peculiar Crimes Unit is called on to solve. It’s an extremely enjoyable read.
Listening to the audio version (brilliantly done by Tim Goodman) I did very nearly suddenly exclaim out loud, in the middle of a crowded train carriage, “Where the hell did that tiger come from?”. It is probably a good thing I did not. I advise you too to avoid such an incident.
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UPDATE: Excellent news – the Bryant & May series is set to continue.