Ten Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler
The fourth book in Fowler’s wonderful Bryant & May mystery series finds the duo trying to apprehend someone who is killing loose-moral minor celebrities in London:
‘Look at his victims: objects of hatred, misunderstanding, and public ridicule by the middle-aged middle classes. Think of vilified TV comics whose careers nose-dive after scandals. The public reaction: “No smoke without fire.” Worst fears are confirmed: “I always felt there was something odd about him.” […]’ [Ten Second Staircase; page 198]
And the killer is going around doing it while dressed in the costume of a legendary highwayman!
‘Do you think you could sketch this man for me? Exactly as you saw him?’
‘I already did, miss.’
Luke Tripp raised the cover of his pad and twisted the portrait towards her.
He had drawn a cape-clad highwayman in a tricorn hat, crimson ruff-collar, leather tunic, and thigh boots, riding a great black stallion. [Ten Second Staircase; page 49]
Worse yet, the killer is being touted by a right-wing opportunistic rag as some sort of avenging folk hero!
In the last two months, Hard News, self-billed as Great Britain’s first daily magazine, had become the periodical with the fastest-growing circulation in the country. Janet Ramsey, former cable newsbabe and Page Three model, was its senior features editor. […]
She flicked at her computer and ran a coral-coloured false nail down the screen, crackling static. ‘If this report is to be trusted, the Highwayman killed twice within the same half hour last night. The public won’t know what to think, so it’s our job to tell them. Either we vilify him, “this depraved monster,” et cetera, which leaves our readers with no course of direct action, or we promote him–luckily, he looks bloody sexy in these stills–and they can follow his exploits. They can feel as if they have a share in him. I think our course of action is clear, don’t you?’ She looked out at the city streets shrouded in autumnal morning vapour. ‘They’re looking for new gods, and we’ve got one for them. Vengeful, unforgiving, filled with righteous wrath, roaring down from the sky like a fiery angel. We’ll give them what they asked for.’ [Ten Second Staircase; pages 215-220]
And, as usual, The Powers That Be are looking to shut down the investigative unit that Bryant & May operate.
But wait. Who is Bryant & May and where do they work? As it’s explained in the first book chronicling their adventures, Full Dark House, which is set both in modern day and during the Blitz:
[John] May’s modern appearance matched the freshness of his outlook. Despite his advanced age, there were still women who found his attentiveness appealing. His technoliteracy and his keen awareness of the modern world complemented [Arthur] Bryant’s strange psychological take on the human race, and their symbiotic teamwork dealt them an advantage over less experienced officers. But it still didn’t stop them from arguing like an old married couple. Their partnership had just commenced its seventh decade.
Those who didn’t know him well considered Arthur Bryant to have outlived his usefulnesss. It didn’t help that he was incapable of politeness, frowning through his wrinkles and forever buried beneath scarves and cardigans, always cold, always complaining, living only for his work. He was the oldest active member of the London police force. But May saw the other side of him, the restlesss soul, the gleam of frustrated intellect in his rheumy eye, the hidden capacity for compassion and empathy. [Full Dark House; page 10]
‘No, they wouldn’t even tell me what PCU stood for[,]’ [said May.]
‘Peculiar Crimes Unit, isn’t it frightful? I think their perception of the word “peculiar” and mine differ somewhat. I’ve got some bumph here you can read through.’ [Bryant] rooted around among his papers, sending several overstuffed folders to the floor, but failed to locate anything specific.
Thinking about his first impression of Arthur Bryant some years later, May was reminded of a young Alec Guinness, bright-eyed and restless, distracted and a little awkward, filled to exhaustion with ideas. May was less excitable, and his habit of keeping a rein on the more excessive reaches of his imagination pegged him to others as the reserved, serious one. After their deaths, it was said by their biographer that ‘Bryant said what he meant and May meant what he said’. May was the diplomat, Bryant the iconoclast, a decent combination as it turned out.
‘They meant “peculiar” in the sense of “particular”, but the damage is done, and the name is attracting some very odd cases. We had a report last month of a man sucking blood out of a Wren in Leicester Square. It’s hopeless. The Heavy Rescue Squads are busy trying to locate people who’ve been buried alive under tons of rubble, most of the central London constabulary remaining at home have left to join the ARP, the ATS and the AFS, and we’re expected to go chasing around after Bela Lugosi. Morale again, you see. They don’t want people to think there’s a bogeyman roaming around in the blackouts, otherwise they won’t head to the shelters. Panic in the streets; it’s an image that scares the hell out of them. You’d think we were more of a propaganda unit than a proper detective squad.’ [Full Dark House; page 25]
What makes Fowler’s Bryant & May series spectacularly excellent is not the weirdness of the mysteries; it’s the interaction between the characters, the inner monologues of Bryant & May, and simply Fowler’s damned great writing.
‘You’ll see I’m using a blackboard,’ Bryant pointed out. ‘I gave Mr May a chance to explain his audiophonic filing system and it failed to impress me, so I’m falling back on a tried and trusted method.
‘You didn’t give it a chance, Arthur,’ May pointed out. ‘It’ll work if you just learn how to use the deck.’ He had borrowed the cumbersome tape machine thinking it might help, but Bryant had managed to wipe the tape clean and irreparably damage the recording heads, although quite how he had managed to do it remained a mystery. It didn’t help that he kept magnets in his overcoat pockets.
For Arthur this was the start of a lifelong stand against technology that would one day result in his crashing the entire central London HOLMES database and part of the air traffic control system at Heathrow. The young detective possessed that peculiar ability more common to elderly men, which produces negative energy around electrical equipment, turning even the most basic appliances into weapons of destruction. The more Bryant tried to understand and operate technical systems, the deadlier they became in his hands, until, at some point in the nineteen sixties, just after he had set fire to his hair by jiggling a fork in a toaster, man and machine had been forced to call a truce. [Full Dark House; page 90]
May […] felt obsolete. The new crimes infecting the crowded city streets were almost beyond his comprehension. People were being shot–shot!–for the most trivial reasons: a jumped traffic light, an altercation in McDonald’s, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When had it started to go so wrong? [Full Dark House; page 31]
Bryant and May are sometimes in full opposition, especially during their first(!) case together:
‘Do you know what I think?’ said May, his voice cracking with anger. ‘You’re deranged. In a week of utter lunacies, you’ve finally lost your mind. Do you have any idea of how insane all of this sounds?’
Bryant’s eyes widened even further. ‘That’s why I didn’t want to tell you, not until I was sure my theory was watertight.’
‘I think you’re tight.’
‘No, no. I have you to thank for seeing clearly. You’re part of the maieutic process.’
‘Socratic midwifery.’ He shook out his fingers in frustration. ‘You know, the easing out of ideas. You help things out of my head, things that were already there but unformed. It’s because you’re so sensible, you’re like the control part of an experiment.’ [Full Dark House; page 280]
‘I’ll admit that as a team we’ve been having a few teething troubles[,]’ [Bryant said.]
‘Teething troubles? You just accused a man who has the ear of the Home Office of practising withcraft! Christ on a bike[,]’ [May replied.] [Full Dark House; page 286]
And Fowler writes killer dialogue:
The woman [Maggie Armitage] standing in the doorway listening to him was small, plump, and resplendent with sparkling appendages. Shells, amulets, chains, bracelets, semiprecious gemstones, and what appeared to be pieces of broken china tied in string dangled from her unnerving bosom. Chiming and jangling, she threw her arms wide to hug Bryant, leaving him smothered in cat hairs and cake crumbs. ‘Darling, monstrous man!’ she laughed. ‘You only ever call when you want something, but do come in.’
‘You look very well,’ Bryant said cheerfully. ‘You seem to be ageing backwards.’
‘Yes, I probably am,’ said Maggie casually. ‘We conducted Day of the Dead celebrations in Miccailhuitontli last month, and the high priest traded me some Mexican rejuvenation paste for my Vodafone battery. It does wonders for the epidermis, although it did take the glaze off my mixing bowl. […]’ [Ten Second Staircase; pages 191-192]
[…] Finch fluttered his long, delicate fingers at the walls. ‘Look at this place. I could go to the police about the ventilation, except we are the police. The extractors are the same ones they used when it was still a prep school. If it got too hot they simply opened the windows, but we can’t do that with decomposing bodies around. Human fat sticks to everything, you know, and the smell lingers forever. No woman will come near me.’
‘You’re wrong there, Oswald. Nobody at all will come near you[,]’ [Bryant said.]
‘That’s it, laugh at my expense while you still can. My job is about accumulating facts. One inaccurate detail compounds itself until the entire case collapses. It’s not possible to be accurate about anything in here. And without factual evidence, everything else is just conjecture. It’s all right for you to play arcane guessing games, but my reputation is on the line. I’ve tendered my resignation to Raymond Land. I’ve had enough. I’m buying a smallholding in Hastings and will see out my days there alone, an embittered untouchable.’
‘If you have to pick a leper colony, I suppose Hastings is as good as any.’ Bryant stuck an exploratory finger in his ear and wiggled it, thinking. ‘Will you have a leaving party?’
‘What’s the point? I hate chocolate cake, and I don’t suppose there’s anyone left to even buy me a card. All my friends are either dead or not feeling very well.’ He stared gloomily into his dissecting tray.
Bryant checked his finger, then dug in his pocket for a sherbert lemon. The smell of the room was starting to get to him. ‘What can I do to perk you up?’
‘Find me an assistant. I’m not supposed to leave an unpacked body unattended. My bladder’s a colander. What if I need to go for a wee?’
‘I didn’t realize you’d become incontinent as well. Every minute we’re getting older. Flesh falls, hairs turn grey, we crumble to pieces as the world regenerates, so why not be happy in the knowledge that we’ll all inevitably fall to bits? Why do you always see the gloomy side of everything?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s probably a side effect of spending the last half-century surrounded by dead people.’ [Ten Second Staircase; pages 78-79]
This is the mark of a true writer. Dialogue that doesn’t simply move forward the plot, but delves into the characters — and in surprising (and sometimes hilarious!) ways. My god! the absolute shit I’ve had to read by people who thought it’s all as easy as taking pen in hand and vomiting up what their nauseous little brains contained! Even those who persist make the error of thinking dialogue is like a ping-pong match: mechanistically back and forth, forth and back. There is an entire lesson in writing for such people in just that exchange between Finch and Bryant. (A lesson that will sadly be lost, I expect!)
Ten Second Staircase was so much fun that I immediately went back and re-read Full Dark House. Not only did I enjoy it again, but I was also astounded by it. Fowler brought me to my knees because in that first book I saw the seeds he planted for every future book — stuff I’d missed the first time around and could only appreciate after the next three books.
Another wonderful thing about this series is that the first book establishes that we are dealing with a team that has been together for a very long time — Their partnership had just commenced its seventh decade. — so Fowler gets to play with time in a way very, very few other writers can. Full Dark House starts out in modern day with the purported murder of Bryant and goes back to the team’s beginning during World War II. The first mystery they solved together is tied up with the killing of Bryant some sixty years later! In Seventy-Seven Clocks, the mystery is set during that most loathsome of all decades, the 1970s. Fowler has given himself a huge swath of time and truckloads of ephemeral cultural references to play with. The forethought that went into creating this series just amazes me. It was designed from the beginning to have a big canvas and to span many books. Not only do we get to see the duo at different stages in their lives, but since they are so long-lived, we also see them surrounded with different team members during different decades. It is truly a living series.
[Excerpts Copyright 2003 Christopher Fowler/Defiant Films and Copyright © 2006 Christopher Fowler. Excerpts used without explicit permission under the Fair Use provisions of Copyright law. CopyNazis can go fuck themselves.]
Prior Christopher Fowler blog coverage:
Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May
Christopher Fowler Slays Me