The Fiction Reboot Presents: Christopher Fowler and the Peculiar Crimes Unit

FictionReboot2_canvasWelcome back to the Fiction Reboot!

We are back–and back with a bang! After a short break, we return with the incredible and prolific Christopher Fowler, author of the Peculiar Crimes Unit series, the world of Bryant and May. Today, I have asked Christopher to speak to us about one of the salient features of his work: the artfully crafted character.

Arthur Bryant and John May 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. Originally based above a London tube station, the technophobic, irascible Bryant and smooth-talking modernist John May head a team of equally unusual misfits who are just as likely to commit crimes as solve them!

But these, while my favorite stories, are certainly not the only works in Mr. Fowler’s repertoire! Other works include short story, film, BBC audio script (Sherlock Holmes, The Lady Downstairs), novella, collections, a column called Forgotten Authors, numerous other novels and–much to my enjoyment–a Bryant and May take on the M. R. James’ Casting the Runes. Absorbing, charming, grim, and always captivating, the works of Christopher Fowler usually make their way into my suitcase during my not-infrequent travels. Below is one of the latest; if you follow the Dose, you know I study 18th century anatomy and 19th century “resurrection men,” so it’s bound to be a new favorite!

It’s a fresh start for the Met’s oddest investigation team, the Peculiar Crimes Unit.

Their first case involves two teenagers who see a dead man rising from his grave in a London park. And if that’s not alarming enough, one of them is killed in a hit and run accident. Stranger still, in the moments between when he was last seen alive and found dead on the pavement, someone has changed his shirt…

Much to his frustration, Arthur Bryant is not allowed to investigate. Instead, he has been tasked with finding out how someone could have stolen the ravens from the Tower of London. All seven birds have vanished from one of the most secure fortresses in the city. And, as the legend has it, when the ravens leave, the nation falls.

Soon it seems death is all around and Bryant and May must confront a group of latter-day bodysnatchers, explore an eerie funeral parlour and unearth the gruesome legend of Bleeding Heart Yard. More graves are desecrated, further deaths occur, and the symbol of the Bleeding Heart seems to turn up everywhere – it’s even discovered hidden in the PCU’s offices. And when Bryant is blindfolded and taken to the headquarters of a secret society, he realises that this case is more complex than even he had imagined, and that everyone is hiding something. The Grim Reaper walks abroad and seems to be stalking him, playing on his fears of premature burial.

For more from Christopher Fowler, See his list of works! Better yet, visit his website and read his blog!

I am a great fan of your work, and one of the key questions I’d like to ask is about the wonderful character development. So often, when there are two detectives, one is lofty (Sherlock-like) and the other a kind of foil. However, even thought Bryant is incredibly brilliant, he is human and approachable (from his lint-covered candy to his childlike wonder at the fortune teller box). Additionally, May us not a foil, but rather shores up real deficiencies–such as his ability to read people, etc. I have a few questions relating to them:

1. How did Bryant develop in your mind? What helped you to make his genius human?

The main thing was his directness. I wanted a character who cut through nonsense. I based his character largely on my business partner (now deceased) who had this direct attitude. Sometimes Bryant actually quotes him, like when he says, ‘The world would be a better place if everyone just did what I said.’ It’s what a lot of people think, so Bryant can voice the unspoken thoughts of readers, especially as he sees the world from an older perspective.

2. So much fiction is frankly ageist, with leads being very young and elders appearing as stereotypes. May is vibrant, virile, and charming–and it is so refreshing. (He’s rather foxy, really). Can you say more about your choice to render him that way?

Yes, he just made the Grazia Lust List, which made me laugh. I needed an antidote to Bryant’s severe outlook, but it was important to keep him close to the same age, to point out that age is really rather a matter of mind. I know ‘old’ 30 year-olds and ‘young’ 70 year-olds. Neither group is especially trying to be young or old, its in their personalities.

3. The other characters in this text are just as interesting, and their stories compelling. Publishers seem to shy away from these complexities but you make it work brilliantly. Do you ever get push back from the industry or from readers?

It’s been incredibly positive, although one Canadian publisher refused to believe that such a character as Maggie could exist – when he came over I introduced him to the woman I modelled her on, and he realised that I had actually toned her down in print! London is stuffed full of unusual characters – it’s a breeding ground for oddness.

4. What are your influences? Favorite authors?

Dickens, above and beyond all. JG Ballard, my great hero, Woolf, Firbank, Forster, Waugh, all the English greats. Waugh especially for his still-shocking mix of darkness and humour (I’m trying to recall the novel in which the hero accidentally eats his girlfriend). The last chapter of the social satire ‘A Handful of Dust’ is in many horror collections. That’s how close he comes to crossing the line.Bradbury and Poe, Jim Shepard and Gary Indiana from the US. But I read so many books that you could ask me any day and get a different answer. Hilary Mantel for sheer thrilling storytelling. I’ve never known so much excitement around a single (as yet unpublished) book as ‘The Mirror and the Light’.

5. Any hints for readers about what’s coming up?

See for upcomings, but there are two Bryant & May books, one already delivered, ‘The Bleeding Heart’, about a man who appears to return from the dead, and the other I’m working on, ‘The Burning Man’, set against the British Guy Fawkes festivals of November 5th each year. Plus my big haunted house novel, ‘Nyctophobia’, set in Spain, is out next Hallowe’en.

6. We talk a lot on tue blog about the new and traditional ways of getting work out there…Any suggestions for writers who are trying to get their own works published?

I would suggest starting by getting a short story into a magazine, whether it’s print or online. Writing begins with visibility; if no-one sees it, it doesn’t exist, so find any way you can to get it out there. Build a fanbase. At the moment, print is still more trusted than online but I never rule out any format. I did a Bryant & May graphic novel last year, which was another use of formats and great fun to do. Anything is permissable!

Thank you, Christopher! And thank you, reader, for joining us on the Fiction Reboot!

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