Review: Full Dark House (Bryant and May #1) by Christopher Fowler

Modern day London is rocked by a bombing, killing a senior police detective. A detective that happens to be head of the special unit of the force: The Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). Arthur Bryant was working late on an old case for his memoirs on a Sunday when the bomb exploded. Ironically he survived the Blitz of the 1940’s only to be blown up in his office decades later.

His partner and fellow head of the PCU, John May, can’t help but wonder if the modern day bombing is somehow linked to their first case together at PCU back in 1940. Now in his 80’s May must try to find out why Bryant was researching such an old case and what he found that might have brought on his demise. Did they apprehend the wrong person, leaving the murder to roam free all these years? But there is one problem, everyone from the original case is dead–it’s been sixty years!

London, 1940. The theater is a place full of dreams, illusions, emotion, and tragedy. It is also the scene of a murder. When a dancer turns up dead in a lift missing her feet this strange crime  is handed off to a newly formed unit: The Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). It is PCU’s first case. 

Soon Bryant and May don’t have just one murder on their hands…..they have a second, and a third, and a fourth in a matter of days–all the murders happening in the theater between air raids. Only a few have seen the killer, but he is not of this world. They say he walks through walls, flies, and materializes out of now. He is horribly disfigured and wearing a Greek tragedy mask. He is the theaters very own phantom.

While Bryant might employ clairvoyants and believe in the occult, he doesn’t believe that this phantom is truly a ghost. But there doesn’t seem like any other logical explanation. While Bryant is busy conducting psychic readings in the theater, May is trying to work out other, more logical explanations. They spend endless hours at the theater each trying to work out their own solution and testing theories but just when they think they have it all figured out, the air raid sirens blare and they emerge from the bomb shelter with another murder on their hands.

When an arrest is finally made, the case appears to be closed for good. But Bryant hates loose ends. There was always something about the case the bothered him, an element that just didn’t fit into the solution. Sixty years later, May is left alone after his partner is murdered in the bombing, struggling to figure out what that something is and if they indeed missed a critical part of the story.

I like to think of this story as a Phantom of the Opera meets Sherlock Holmes style detective novel. I really loved the concept of a theater ghost, even though Phantom of the Opera has a similar concept, in this book it was portrayed much differently. I thought it added a flamboyant flair to the story.

I really enjoyed the history feel of the story as well. The Blitz added an intense, unknown element to the story. Would London get raided tonight? Was it clear enough? Was that a siren? How close was the bombing? I loved the uncertainly this created in the story. I added an additional layer of depth and anxiety to the story.

I wasn’t initially sure how well the modern day story and WWII part of the story would fit together. I thought it would be confusing and when a story jumps like that, it either works or it doesn’t. But in this case, it works! It was really fun to read May and Bryant as young boys just starting out and then jump back to modern day and see how their relationship had evolved. Both past and present plots reach satisfying resolutions.

I loved the deadpan banter between the detectives. They were both individually intriguing characters. In most detective novels, the hero (usually the lead detective) is eccentric and brilliant while the second detective is almost always the normal (boring) sidekick. That is not the case with Bryant and May. While Bryant is eccentric and dramatic, May is funny, thoughtful, and far from boring.

In the modern day storyline, it is clear they have history, entanglements, and a deep love and respect for one another. Bryant and May are grumpy (but charming) old men who complemented each other very well. They have had a lifetime to figure out a way to work together with all of their quirks and eccentricities and to forge a partnership and help make PCU a credible unit instead of a laughing stock.

The PCU itself is an interesting unit. Their job is to fritter out strange crimes and cases. They often reference the Leicester Square Vampire who was feeding on tourists and their unit was to investigate….I can honestly say I wasn’t sure if they were kidding or being serious. Part of me thinks serious because May’s landlady describes May’s intruder as werewolf  looking and he acted like that was a normal occurrence. There was also the witch coven and the use of a clairvoyant….so part of me thinks there are other fantasy/paranormal elements to this series that we will see in later books. Though there were certainly occultist and paranormal elements to the story the novel was intended to be a detective novel, not a paranormal read which I liked. It added a ‘peculiar’ layer to the mystery.

One thing I felt distracted from the novel was the dialog. There were times when I lost track of who was talking and had to go back several lines in the dialog to figure out who was talking. I also thought the titled chapters distracted from the story, a simply Chapter I would have worked better. For me it slowed the pace of the novel. But other than a couple of mechanical things, this story is a solid detective novel and exciting new series.

The mystery was a puzzel that kept me interested with lots of strange twists. I already know that I will enjoy this series and I can’t wait to read what is in store for the duel next! This is an interesting debut that leaves the reader wondering what peculiar crime will come through the door of the little office on Mornington Crescent.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: Full Dark House (Bryant and May #1) by Christopher Fowler 

  • Paperback, 356 pages
  • Published September 30th 2008 by Bantam Dell Pub Group (P) (first published 1994)
  • ISBN 0553385534 (ISBN13: 9780553385533)

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 4 out of 5 (a solid detective novel/series)

Genre: Mystery, detective novels, historic fiction

Memorable lines/quotes:

The trouble with a unit like the PCU: it was destined to be staffed with the kind of employee who had been rejected from other institutions in spite of their qualifications (68)
Acting is a confidence trick. You dont attract good roles without exuding confidence and you only have that if you already know you have talent (146)
Once you’ve met the one all the others are just phantasms (340)

6 thoughts on “Review: Full Dark House (Bryant and May #1) by Christopher Fowler

    1. Same here! It is one of my favs! That was the thing that drew me to the book at the store….in the endless stacks of used books this cover totall stood out and I knew I had to read this book! 🙂

  1. Ah, I love the concept of two quirky old gentleman detectives sleuthing and muddling through a case together! I also like the suggestion that this novel’s got a Sherlock Holmes meets The Phantom of the Opera vibe. Historical speculative fiction with a spooky dosage of the occult? Sounds like it’d be right up my alley!

    (Plus, to echo Jennifer’s sentiments: that cover would definitely induce me to give this one a second and third glance!) I look forward to your thoughts on future books in this series. 🙂

    1. I loved the idea/concept too! I was really curious about how everything was going to come together…especially since so much time had lapsed between the original crime (1940) and the present. I think I’ll continue with the series….and yes the cover is horribly enticing 🙂

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