Friday, November 2, 2012

Book Review: Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

While shelving in the long ago days of pagedom, I noticed a set of mysteries that had the same subtitle: Peculiar Crimes Unit. As Peculiar Crimes are much more interesting than Ordinary Crimes, I thought I’d give them a shot. I had to go elsewhere to get the first in the series, but I’m glad I did.

The story follows two separate arcs: one set in the present, and one in the past. Present day, an explosion at the Peculiar Crimes department has seemingly killed off Arthur Bryant, one of the founders. His partner, John Mays, tries to find out what his last case was, the case he was working on when the department exploded. To his surprise, he discovers his partner had reopened their very first case.

This leads us to England during World War II, where John Mays, a young nineteen year old, has been hired as an amateur detective to a unit dedicated to solving all the strange crimes that the regular police won’t deal with while the bombings continue. According to Bryant, studies show that an observant civilian is just as useful as a trained detective. Mays is his first hire, followed by a rule-abiding police officer shunted over to the unit for being too, shall we say, zealous.

They get their first taste of a peculiar crime only a few days later, when a dancer’s severed feet are found on a vendor’s cart, and the dancer’s body later found in the elevator of one of the few theaters still open. The theater is on the verge of putting on a daring opera, yet it seems that a curse dogs their every move. As the bodies pile up, Bryant and Mays fight the deadline to discover the perpetrator before anyone else dies, or worse, the theater closes.

Fowler does an excellent job, weaving the plot between the past investigation and the present one. It’s intriguing to see the young, naïve Mays in contrast to the older, wiser, and much more sober Mays that has been bereaved of his best friend. Fowler has an excellent sense of atmosphere as well. You can feel the tension and the desperation for people to “keep calm and carry on” as the bombings rage around England, and the funereal air that dogs the present story line as Mays follows his partner’s last steps.

Characterization is done well. Fowler picked well when he put two highly different men together, as well as giving them their own contrasting characteristics. Mays is young, naïve, and open-hearted, yet he remains rational and logical throughout. Bryant is cynical, gruff, and sometimes cold, yet he is the one consulting mediums and considering the prospect of an actual curse.

Fowler’s book is as peculiar as his crime unit, yet it does him no disservice. He’s an excellent writer with the dry English wit we all love.

I give a 3.5 out of 5.

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