I’ve just reread the #8th Peculiar Crimes Unit novel, Off The Rails by Christopher Fowler. Fowler has become one of my favorite authors. This is another superb, satisfying romp with Arthur Bryant and John May who are Golden Age Detectives in a modern world. They head the Peculiar Crimes Unit, London’s most venerable specialist police team, a division founded during the Second World War to investigate cases that could cause national scandal or public unrest. The technophobic, irascible Bryant and smooth-talking, well-dressed John May, head a team of interesting characters. The cases take on the different styles of the classic detective story.
The series is set primarily in London, with stories taking place between World War II and the present. While there is a progressive narrative, each of the cases stands alone as separate stories. (the exceptions being ‘On The Loose’ and ‘Off The Rails’, which should be read together). Fowler weaves many factual layers of London’s history and society throughout the series making each one unique and fascinating. Most of the locations are recognizable London landmarks such as St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tate Gallery, and various theaters. London can be considered a separate character in the novels. Christopher Fowler never fails to teach me something interesting, whether it is about English pubs or in the case of Off The Rails, the history of building the Underground Tube Stations.
In Off The Rails, London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit has been given a week to clear its backlog of investigations or be shut down. While the team is looking for Mr. Fox, who killed one of their own while escaping, what appears to be a mundane accident takes place – a young mother falls down the escalator in a rush-hour tube station, in full view of commuters and cameras. Bryant and May suspect that the ‘accident’ is far more than it seems. As this mystery is unraveled, you will become a Christopher Fowler fan.
Here is an example of Fowler’s fine writing.
Arthur Bryant: Have you met him before? If not, imagine a tortoise minus its shell, thrust upright and stuffed into a dreadful suit. Give it glasses, false teeth, and a hearing aid, and a wispy band of white hair arranged in a straggling tonsure. Fill its pockets with rubbish; old pennies and scribbled notes, boiled sweets and leaky pens, a glass model of a Ford Perfect filled with Isle of wright sand, yards of string, a stuffed mouse, some dried peas. And fill its head with a mad scramble of ideas: the height of the steeple at St. Clement Danes, the tide table of the Thames, the dimensions of Waterloo Station, and the MOs of murderers. On top of all this, add the enquiring wonder of a ten-year-old boy. Now you have the measure of the man.