Full Dark House
Transworld / Doubleday
UK Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 08-01-2003
382 Pages; £12.99
Date Reviewed: 02-01-06
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006
When a novel and a series about a pair of detectives begins with the death of one of the partners, you can be pretty well assured that you're not getting the average mystery series. That's especially true when the author has just scored an award for his back-to-basics zombie horror novel. And whenever the name Christopher Fowler is on the cover, you can expect some genre-bending effects. He's deftly combined mystery, history and horror in such novels as 'Darkest Day' and in some of the short stories found in 'City Jitters'. In fact, one of my favorite stories from 'City Jitters' involved two aging detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May, who later showed up in 'Rune'. Both times I thought that Fowler would be well advised to write a series based around these two, and he's finally done so. 'Full Dark House' exceeds any expectations I might have formed in the intervening years. Bryant and May are utterly engaging characters, the settings, both historical and modern are wonderfully detailed, and the mystery, tinged with supernatural overtones is gripping and exciting.
Fowler's novel begins when Arthur Bryant and the lab he was working in are both blown to bits and pieces. Bryant was always the eccentric in an eccentric department, the Peculiar Crimes Unit. As his partner John May investigates Bryant's death, he learns that Bryant was working on items associated with their first case together, when the unit was formed, during the Blitz. That crime was indeed most peculiar. It began when a dancer, the star of a scandalous new production of Orpheus in the Underworld, was found dead, with her feet missing. Assigned to pick up the weird, inexplicable murders that people try to get up to during the Blitz, Bryant and May soon find themselves embroiled in a backstage mystery. Some sixty years later, May tries to piece together the last bits of his partner's life and the wartime crime that started their careers together.
Make no mistake about it, this is a novel where the characters are kings. Bryant and May are an outstanding combination, both as crotchety old men and especially as green recruits. Shoved into the force because they can't qualify to go abroad, they're given far more responsibility and leverage than they might ever have hoped for during peacetime. Their dialogue is a constant delight, and will have you laughing out loud on a regular basis. Bryant is the maverick, a couple of years older than May. Tall, gangly, he's the partner who believes in the supernatural and has all the contacts on the fringes of polite society. He's delightfully, deliberately naughty, but socially awkward. May is shorter, more compact, and certainly more down-to-earth. He's the one who keeps Bryant from getting too far out, and it's certainly not an easy job. Rounding out the PCU team are Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright, May's match in terms of low-key temperament and Sidney Biddle, clearly the counterbalance for Bryant. Biddle is the cuckoo in the fold, the impatient unbeliever who can't wait to tank the unit and get the heck out. Each of these characters is a joy every time we meet them.
But Fowler has a huge cast, and it's to his credit that he makes every character detailed and appealing, or if not appealing, at least interesting to encounter. Thus, you'll meet Edna Wagstaff, a psychic who gets her information via a large collection of stuffed cats, and Oswald Finch, the humorless coroner, as well as the large and varied cast of the theater production in jeopardy. Fowler manages to let everyone strut the stage, say their lines, exit stage left and keep the action going without ever confusing he reader. It's a pretty amazing prose feat, and it really complicates the mystery when there are so many possible suspects.
Perhaps the most important of 'Full Dark House' is in fact the city of London during the Blitz. Fowler has done his homework and then some more, and the result is a harrowing picture of a city under attack that echoes eerily into the terrors we currently fear. The geography is clearly laid out, and as Bryant and May traipse about the city, you'll feel the fear, the reverberations of the bombs and choke on the dust. The ambience of a city being bombed regularly is quite frightening. This historical setting is convincingly created and is consistently intriguing. But as a setting for a murder mystery, it's outstanding. Since people are dying quite regularly, it's easy to conceal another death. Moreover, there's a terror component to all this as well. Londoners had every right to feel that Germans might actually be among them, murdering people on the ground simply to cause, as we would put it, terror. Part of the dispatch of the PCU is to prevent this type of terror. It all adds to a very entertaining and complex brew.
Accordingly, Fowler has created a couple of very complex mysteries to drive the plot here. Entertainment comes both at seeing the coppers attempt to solve them and as readers try to pick out what's important amid the huge and complicated pallet that Fowler creates. Fowler does a masterful job at suggesting the supernatural without denigrating the police work. This is a difficult feat, because the supernatural avenue can quickly undercut all the footwork. Fowler keeps everything up in the air and it all lands quite neatly without getting confused in the fallout.
'Full Dark House' is an outstanding setup novel for the mystery series that follows. There are already two additional novels out, 'The Water Room' and 'Seventy-Seven Clocks'. Having read the first full-on Bryant and May mystery will have you lining up the next books in the series. I'd be quick to compliment some very nice cover designs for all the novels thus far. They're perfectly classy, and give readers a good idea as to what they might expect inside. Moreover, the UK hardcovers are still pretty easy to get, while in the US you can snag mass-market paperbacks to read on the beach. 'Full Dark House' is everything the title suggests and more; a rich, complex novel, a gothic exploration, chock full of genre tweaks, peculiar characters and the unexpected -- laughter, joyous laughter at the sheer weirdness of life, death and everything in between.