Hall of Mirrors, by Christopher Fowler
This book is a prequel [not the only one, according to the author’s website, and Arthur Bryant’s ongoing memoirs appear to be the regular source] to the only other book in the Bryant and May Series by this author which I have reviewed, The Lonely Hour [https://wilfredbooks.wordpress.com/2022/01/01/book-review-57/], and it is informally prefaced by a current-day chapter, in which Arthur Bryant’s publisher’s editor is treating him to lunch, and trying [without an appreciable degree of success] to pin him down on the potential for further volumes of his memoirs, the first one having “sold rather well”, albeit “Considering they’re written by an elderly police detective with a faulty memory”. The narrative which follows is not so much, as Simon Sartorius the editor had hoped for, a whodunit, but “more of a when-is-someone-going-to-do-it-and-to-whom. To use our technical parlance.” Set in 1969, as well as being the end of the so-called “swinging sixties”, both sociologically as well as chronologically, “The investigation began and ended in a single weekend, although I suppose its roots went back further than that. It was at the end of the summer of 1969, an extraordinary time to be young. …” This after the editor had observed that “some less charitable critics have suggested that your first volume should have been filed under Fantasy.”, and remonstrating that “I do think that telling them you were investigating crimes during the Blitz is pushing it a bit.” In his usual mischievously straight-faced fashion, Bryant ascribed that to mistakes in translation from his notes, which he writes in Aramaic; “It’s a three-thousand-year-old language so I have to make up a lot of words.”: well, of course!
As Bryant stated, the action does, indeed, unfold over a single weekend, and the pace is so slow that it almost feels like the narrative is being described in ‘real time’; although that’s physically impossible for a modestly-sized book, of course. Both men are young, still quite eager; although Bryant is nowhere near as ‘with-it’ as John May, and uncomfortably aware of that, but he conceals this discomfort behind a bookish demeanour which might today be described, albeit not entirely accurately, as ‘young fogeyish’; we also learn, towards the end of the story, how Bryant acquires his trademark long, rainbow-coloured scarf [similarities to a certain fictional time-traveller not entirely unintentional?]. After an introductory chapter, describing the tragic partial collapse of a new tower-block building, with similarities to the actual Ronan Point collapse in May 1968, the main narrative commences. After the unfortunate sinking of a canal barge, during the course of an unsuccessful attempt to apprehend a man known [only to Bryant, at the time] as Burlington Bertie from Bow; “…once the East End’s most notorious hitman — until he went bonkers.”, the pair are forced to face what Bryant describes as “a kangaroo court that’s already been briefed on how to get rid of us.”, presided over by the magnificently named Horatio Kasavian, “some kind of Home Office-appointed intermediary by the sound of it.” He is actually surprisingly astute, and while their long-term future at the Peculiar Crimes Unit is considered, he allows them to take on “a freelance job” for “a chap at the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] with a problem…”; this turns out to be protecting a witness in a high-profile London criminal court trial, for the weekend preceding the commencement of the proceedings.
The witness is Monty Hatton-Jones, one of the “clubroom pals” of the defendant, Sir Charles Chamberlain, “a millionaire property developer who lives in Belgravia.”; the former has “decided to turn whistleblower” on the latter, because of “a bit of hot water” he’d got himself into “and covered it up smartish”, so Hatton-Jones apparently needs protection before the trial begins; because of the threat to Chamberlain’s reputation & livelihood, naturally. Just to complicate matters, the protection needs to be afforded at a country house in Kent, owned by an imperious matriarch with a batty hippy son, who has a commune in the grounds with hangers-on in various stages of intoxication; there is also a motley collection of other invited guests, including the secretive American millionaire who is buying the visibly crumbling pile, together with his British wife; the lawyer who is handling the sale [although he is not currently resident, but staying in the nearby village]; a young & attractive singer, who is generally acknowledged as being the millionaire’s mistress; a flamboyant interior designer, contracted to the millionaire; a modestly successful female novelist; the local vicar; and six staff, several of whom are ancient and/or disabled. The detectives also have a man ‘on the inside’: the one-armed, one-legged gardener, Brigadier Nigel “Fruity” Metcalfe. During the course of the weekend, several unsuccessful attempts upon Hatton-Jones’s life are made, but the culprit always seems to vanish into thin air; apart from which, none of the guests seems to have an obvious motive for wishing to silence the putative whistle-blower. An apparent grisly murder does occur but, notwithstanding the reticence of the detective pair, who are initially masquerading as house-guests: acquaintances of their charge; to hand the investigation over to the official police in Canterbury, they are somewhat hampered by local army manoeuvres, whose organisers have erroneously assumed that the house is currently unoccupied, and the fact that it won’t stop raining…..
This is another unassailably worthy member of the B&M canon, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it, especially if you enjoy eccentric characters, one of whom [Bryant] is written in a way that very gently, but also respectfully, pokes fun at fictitious amateur sleuths, such as Holmes and Agatha Christie’s two best-known and -loved characters. Fowler’s writing, for me, strikes just the right balance between humorous economy and erudition [B&M’s quick-fire word games, for no other reason than to stave off boredom, usually end in May’s defeat, with his characteristic response of “Bollocks!”, and the handing over of the penalty of a tanner (six old pence; 2½ ‘new’ pence)], so finding a new, hitherto unread story in this series is always an enjoyable prospect. The paperback I read was first published in 2018 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London; Penguin Bantam edition published 2019, ISBN 978-0-8575-0311-4.