Bryant & May Off the Rails once again features Christopher Fowler’s two ageing London detectives from the Peculiar Crimes Unit, Arthur Bryant and John May.
It also features two departures from the norm for this series. Normally the books are free-standing, with characters developing across the different novels but the crimes in the books isolated from each other. This time, the plot picks up where the predecessor, Bryant & May On the Loose, ended with the police chasing the same criminal, Mr. Fox.
Moreover, although the book is once again very firmly set in London, the slice of London history which nominally provides the backdrop this time, the London Underground, is not really that important. Sure, plenty of the action happens in stations and tunnels. But the particular history of these parts of London doesn’t influence the story very much. It provides a scenic backdrop rather than one that influences the plot in ways that would be different from one set on a train network in another city. What is more, one of the few Tube details on which a part of the plot hinges, about disused passenger tunnels in stations being open to the public, is not accurate. An understandable poetic license, albeit one at odds with Fowler’s usual habit of weaving his fiction around as small a departure as possible from London’s actual history and state.
That, however, does not take away from a once again entertaining and at times very funny detective story. The set-up of suspects all in a room being questioned by detectives is saved from being a clichéd Agatha Christie cast-off by Fowler instead using it to play homage to her, and having his characters acknowledge the reference.
The story is really two different plots woven into one, which makes for more tension and intrigue, though you have to turn a blind eye to the improbable convergence of them at the end, with both plots ending up culminating on the same few square metres of the same platform at the same Underground station.
As is common in the series, there is a rich cast of characters, with long-running regular minor figures getting their moments of character development and description, making it feel like there is a large and rounded cast of characters which we readers are just happening to get to see a slice of.
Fowler repeats his neat trick from earlier volumes of using memos and a staff roster at the start of the book to quickly bring new readers up to speed on some of the basics of the cast and setting (enough for the book to work even if you have not read its predecessor), and to remind longer-term readers of salient points they may have forgotten.
All very enjoyable.