My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is sort of Phantom of the Opera meets Sherlock Holmes, with the role of Sherlock being played by Arthur Bryant and Dr. Watson by John May. This was the first in the Bryant and May series featuring the London Police Department's Peculiar Crimes Unit. Some of the crimes here are very peculiar, indeed.
The roots of the mystery are in the World War II period when London is being hit by the Blitz and theater productions are staged with the purpose of keeping the spirits of the populace up. In this instance, the production at the Palace Theatre is a rather risque interpretation of Orpheus in Hades. The theater itself seems to be haunted by a ghostly presence that does not approve and that is attempting to close the show before it opens.
It begins with a dancer in the production being murdered in a particularly cruel way. Her feet are chopped off and thrown away. Two other murders of cast members follow. All are murders that might possibly have been interpreted as accidents, but upon closer scrutiny by members of the PCU are proved to be crimes.
Bryant and May, at this point, are just beginning their careers. They are barely twenty but already display the cranky personalities that they will become well-known for in later years. This is their first case together and we get to be present at the forging of their relationship, a friendship that will last for more than half a century.
Christopher Fowler switches back and forth between the present and the World War II era in the telling of this story, which I found a bit disconcerting at first, but finally I managed to get into the rhythm of the tale. Fowler takes us from the first case of Bryant and May to what appears to be their last.
We find the octogenarian detectives still working at the Peculiar Crimes Unit in the new century. While doing research for his memoirs, Bryant becomes intrigued by some aspect of that old case, the Palace Theatre murders, and begins reinvestigating. In the midst of his inquiries, a bomb explodes at the offices of the PCU one night and the charred remains of an elderly male along with a set of false teeth are discovered. Based on the teeth, the remains are identified as Arthur Bryant.
John May is devastated by the loss of his old friend and determines to find his killer. He discovers his friend's notes of that first case and sees that he was working on them. May comes to believe that the identity of the killer is to be found somewhere in that first case.
This darkly comic and suspenseful novel is an interesting introduction to a new series. The characters of Bryant and May seem a winning combination. Bryant employs unorthodox techniques of investigation based on intuition and on help from spiritualists and others with alternative views of the universe. May represents the logical and dogged nitty gritty police work side of the team. Together they are a formidable investigative duo.
The plot is filled with unexpected twists and with fascinating characters that keep one guessing throughout. The Full Dark House of the Palace Theatre is a creepy place where one would not want to walk alone at night - or even in daytime. It's good that we have the members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit along to keep us safe.
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