The Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) mystery series by
Christopher Fowler is one of a kind. Unapologetically British, one
finds elements of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, James Bond,
“The Avengers” and “Danger Mouse”
circulating throughout the books, yet the concept is delightfully
unique. The PCU is a division of the London Metropolitan Police
Department, which has been in existence for over 60 years. Arthur
Bryant and John May, its stalwart, eccentric detectives, have been
at the de facto helm for more or less the entire time, riding herd
over a group of square but interesting pegs who can’t fit in
In THE VICTORIA VANISHES, middle-aged women are turning up dead in
London pubs. The manner of their deaths --- the administration of a
painless, extremely quick-acting poison --- is puzzling as well.
What is confounding is that Bryant appears to have been the last
person to see one of the victims alive, outside of a pub that had
been demolished some 80 years previously. He is at a loss. Already
coming to doubt the veracity of his observational faculties, he is
seriously contemplating retirement. As with so many of their other
investigations, the sheer volume of Bryant and May’s case
history, and Bryant’s encyclopedic if arcane body of
knowledge --- hampered only by his sporadic though temporary memory
lapses --- ultimately win the day.
There is a bit of logic to this, given that, in their world,
Bryant and May have been investigating cases for over six decades
in one location. Elements of past and present cases dovetail, cross
over, dip and swirl, and fall back on themselves. But in this book,
when the identity of the murderer is revealed and the cad is
apprehended, Bryant is not done. There are some unanswered
questions that deal not so much with the murderer’s
motivation --- that is all too clear --- but with what, or who,
wound him up and pointed him toward these particular victims. And
what about that vanishing pub?
THE VICTORIA VANISHES is one of those rare books in which the
real excitement begins after the murderer is brought to justice.
And talk about multiple endings! Fans of the series will be
screaming, jumping up and down, unable to believe what they are
reading by the time they reach the conclusion. I had to read
the ending a couple of times before it sunk in that Fowler indeed
was actually carrying out an act that had been hinted at since the
beginning of the series. Or is he? That is but one of the many
attractions of these novels, which are as delightfully and
insidiously addicting as a serotonin supplement.
Fowler makes demands on the reader: the plots are complex, the
characters are multi-faceted, and the humor is fast, furious and
subtle. This is not a work to be skimmed on the bus, but rather to
be read in the quiet of solitude so that every word, sentence and
nuance can be fully appreciated alone and within context.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011