As author Christopher Fowler notes at the beginning of his acknowledgements to BRYANT & MAY OFF THE RAILS, every Bryant & May novel is self-contained. This is true, even if the current book is somewhat of a sequel to BRYANT & MAY ON THE LOOSE. Fowler does a magnificent job of immediately bringing new readers up to speed on the various and sundry personalities making up the eternally-threatened Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), which in turn is headed up by the oddest of odd couples, those octo-somethings named Arthur Bryant and John May.
"Fowler’s prose is shot through with humor, dry and otherwise, which plays a part in relieving the grimness of some of his subject matter."
OFF THE RAILS begins almost where ON THE LOOSE left off. The Peculiar Crimes Unit is reeling from the escape of the serial murderer known only as Mr. Fox, who killed one of its own in the course of his escape. This gives the powers-that-be an excuse to cut off PCU’s funding, though an 11th-hour miracle provides them with a week’s grace to bring Mr. Fox back into custody and hopefully to justice. At the same time, the death of a young woman that might be an accident but is probably a murder occurs in the London Underground --- what we in the colonies would refer to as the “subway” --- and the team is charged with making a determination concerning that incident too. Fowler sticks with what has worked so well for him in the past, bringing the eccentric methods of Bryant into play with the by-the-book investigations of the squared-away May to follow a tortuous path that on this occasion leads them to a motley group of college students, each of whom easily could be responsible for the death.
At the same time, the PCU discovers an eerie connection between Mr. Fox and a horrific event that took place in the London Underground decades before. When Mr. Fox attempts to murder one of his former colleagues in an underground hallway, and one of the suspicious college students disappears while boarding a subway train, it appears that the investigative paths that the PCU is pursuing are about to cross. And do they ever. Before OFF THE RAILS is over, one of London’s longest-standing mysteries will be solved and justice will be done, though at least one of the regular characters in the series will experience some disappointment, however minor.
If you have any interest at all in mysteries or histories, you should be reading the Bryant & May books. Fowler’s prose is shot through with humor, dry and otherwise, which plays a part in relieving the grimness of some of his subject matter. At the same time, he sets his stories in the most fascinating areas of one of the world’s greatest cities. I can’t imagine visiting London without all of the Bryant & May volumes at hand and taking a (very long) walking tour through the pages of each and all. And of course, there are the characters themselves, all memorable in their own ways.
OFF THE RAILS also is unique to the series in a small but important way. Fowler addresses an issue in these books that is peculiar to series fiction: characters who don’t age rapidly. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, for example, was a veteran of World War II when first introduced in 1973. This seemed at odds with the vigor that Spenser displayed at the dawn of the 21st century. Parker dealt with it by no longer mentioning Spenser’s service. Given the problem created by the ages of Bryant and May, and their years together on the PCU, Fowler deftly and ingeniously gives himself a decade’s worth of breathing room, in a manner that will leave you chuckling. That alone is worth the price of admission, though you will get so much more.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 5, 2011