RogerBW's Blog

Ten Second Staircase, Christopher Fowler 07 November 2019

2007 police procedural mystery/horror, fourth in the Bryant and May series. Someone is killing celebrities by various baroque means; the Peculiar Crimes Unit balances that investigation with an attempt to prevent the unit being shut down.

Again. This is clearly a hard balance to strike in a series; on the one hand you want to have recurring themes because if not what’s the point of having a series at all, but on the other hand you don’t want to be samey. And for me the supposed tension generated by trotting out the “will the unit be closed down” plot element yet again fell flat, just as it would if Fowler tried to get me to think that the principals’ lives were at risk; as a reader I know that this is an ongoing series. The things that generate effective tension are the smaller ones: yes, the leads will live and the unit will go on, but what will it cost them to crack the case? Who else will suffer on the way to a solution?

What I’d have liked to see instead is what was hinted at in the opening chapters: the unit has had a recent success, and is completely unused to public acclaim, so how do its people deal with that?

At least this time there isn’t a secondary narrative about a young woman on the edges of the case conducting her own investigation, as there was in the last two books; though May’s granddaughter April, finally (after three books of hinting) turning up for a job with the unit, does a bit of this late in the day.

The main plot feels like self-parody at times: as usual, Bryant makes irrelevant connections to London’s psychogeography, but this time it turns out that rirelguvat jnf frg hc qryvorengryl ol gur hatbqyl va beqre gb yher uvz qbja snyfr genvyf. I was thoroughly unconvinced by the identity and motivation of the killer; yes, on the one hand it accounted for the victims and the modes of murder, but it raised questions of knowledge and capacity that I felt were not even considered, never mind answered.

A more compelling narrative might have carried me over these problems, but even for an audiobook this seemed slow-paced and sometimes laboured. It didn't help that I was able to put together the basic idea of what was going on quite quickly, which always makes the characters in the story who don't get it look stupid; and while I did like the meditations on the tensions of being young in a world of end-stage capitalism, they didn't go anywhere. Well, not that they could, I suppose, without the author having an answer for society, but it all just felt wasted.

(And everyone’s always “flipping” open their phones. What’s up with that? The predominant form factor for mobile phones in 2007, just pre-iPhone, was the one-piece “candybar” without flip or slider.)

I still enjoy the series, but I think it's at its best when it dives into its arcana (by tying them to characters' motivations; there may be no actual magic in this world, but there are people who believe in it and act accordingly) rather than just dumping “here's all this stuff I found in old books”.

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Previous in series: Seventy-Seven Clocks | Series: Bryant and May

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