Review

Ten Second Staircase a Bryant & May Mystery

by Christopher Fowler



Arthur Bryant and John May are two of detective fiction's most
unique anachronisms. The de facto heads of the London Police
Department's Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), Bryant and May have been
investigating murders in their somewhat peculiar way for almost 60
years. Now well ensconced within senior status, the two, as well as
the somewhat unusual personalities who assist them in the
ramshackle PCU offices, attempt to maintain their relevance in the
modern world, occasionally eschewing modern detection methods in
favor of tried-and-true tactics that have held them in good stead
for decades, even as the misdeeds of the past --- more often than
not --- provide clues for present-day mayhem.

TEN SECOND STAIRCASE, the latest Bryant and May novel, involves a
series of locked room mysteries, in which a noted personality of
some dubious repute (a controversial artist, a minor celebrity, a
notorious pederast) is found dead under ambiguous circumstances,
possibly by ill fortune or accident, but probably by murder most
foul. An unlikely figure, appearing to be an old English
highwayman, is seen in the vicinity of each death; he leaves a
somewhat cryptic calling card at each scene.

As if this was not enough, the PCU finds itself threatened, as in
the past, with extinction. The unexpected and unofficial test for
the ongoing survival of PCU is the resolution of its most notorious
cold case, one that involves the so-called Leicester Square
Vampire, a cold-blooded murderer whose victims include May's own
daughter. Those who occasionally have taken Fowler to task in the
past for what they have considered to be unlikely solutions to
difficult puzzles will have reason to rejoice here, as the
apparently impossible Highwayman murders are plausibly
explained.

Bryant is a curmudgeon, but one cannot help but embrace
himĀ for his penchant for rude and unpredictable --- yet
dead-on --- practical jokes. May, while being the more approachable
and pragmatic of the pair, has an unrepentantly sweet side to
himself, manifested by his gentle doting upon April, his
agoraphobic granddaughter who in TEN SECOND STAIRCASE joins the PCU
as a full-time member and brings her canny powers of observation to
the fore.

There is so much to like here. Fowler gently rapid-fires from the
mouths of Bryant or May bits of London history at the reader, and
the tone, from first word to last, is so unrestrainedly British
that while reading it one can almost feel the cobblestone beneath
one's feet. At the same time, there is a great deal of understated
dark humor to recommend. Think, if you will, of Agatha Christie
resurrected to script "The Avengers" television series, and you'll
have an idea of what's going on here. Rather than being formulistic
writing, this is a comfortable familiarity, given that Fowler keeps
his idiosyncratic characters fresh and interesting by...well,
creating fresh and interesting characters to begin with.

This element, combined with Fowler's off-kilter storyline and
intriguing criminals, makes TEN SECOND STAIRCASE the strongest
entry in the series to date.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011

Ten Second Staircase a Bryant & May Mystery
by Christopher Fowler

  • Publication Date: June 27, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 356 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam
  • ISBN-10: 0553804499
  • ISBN-13: 9780553804492