I’ve just finished reading Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, his first murder mystery in what may be a series. (The second, The Water Room, is also out – my wife’s reading it. We found them both in brand new condition at an op shop.)
If this is a series, it begins in a distinctly odd way by having one of the two major characters, Bryant, killed off in the first page. His longstanding sidekick, May (Bryant and May, get it?) spends the rest of the book finding out why he was killed, as well as remembering (in remarkable detail) their first case together, which took place in the middle of London’s blitz.
Bryant is an eccentric 23-year old in the war-time part of the story; in the present he’s in his eighties, and still eccentric. May is the stable character who struggles at first to warm to Bryant, but ultimately becomes his best friend.
The basic story (in the past) has Bryant and May, who are part of an odd and possibly unlikely adjunct to the police force that deals with peculiar crimes, trying to discover who’s killing off members of the cast of a production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld that’s about to be presented in war-torn London. The production is being rehearsed in the Palace Theatre, an enormous building that covers an entire block, is at least five storeys high, and has so many rooms and corridors and odd spaces that no one ever really gets to know the whole place.
Fowler does his own peculiar slant on the mystery story. For a start, he keeps on introducing characters at a rate of knots, until by the end of the book I’d given up trying to remember who all the theatrical people were. Not only that, he kills characters off, in two instances, within the same chapter he’s introduced them in. This doesn’t seem quite according to Hoyle, to my way of thinking. At least let the reader get to know the victim before they’re dispatched. Two other characters die (I’m not giving away any great secrets here) without us really getting to know them, and you get the feeling that the victims are just there because they’re there. It almost wouldn’t matter who they were.
There are lots of red herrings, lots of detail (Fowler is an established and stylish writer), lots of switching back and forth between the past and present, and, in the end, a reasonably neat mystery. I can’t say it was overwhelmingly surprising in terms of the whodunit side of things, and I think Mr Fowler cheated just a little. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining, often funny, and not a waste of time. There’s a delightful appendix at the back which purports to be Bryant’s list relating to the theatre crimes. In fact it’s Fowler having a last lot of jokes before he closes the book.