Oranges and Lemons, by Christopher Fowler
To borrow an analogy from Forrest Gump, dipping into a new [as in either previously unread, or the latest] Christopher Fowler book; most of which feature his characters detectives Arthur Bryant & John May, who work for London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit; is similar to opening an exotic box of chocolates: there will, very possibly, be plenty of oddities, most of which will be enjoyable, but there is also the reassurance of at least two familiar elements, which will perform as expected. I have remarked before about the humour to be found in these books [The Lonely Hour & Hall of Mirrors]—I think the description ‘quirky’ is somewhat overused now [at least it’s not zany]—but police procedurals can be somewhat dour [cf. the Shetland series, by Ann Cleeves; the Vera series maybe not so much] if not leavened by some humour, provided it isn’t inappropriate to the gravity of the situation.
This story, as in Hall of Mirrors, starts with a meeting in an eatery, but it is also bookended by another one, during both of which Bryant’s harassed editor, Simon Sartorius, is trying to make some sense of the former’s rambling efforts at encapsulating his life experience for a memoir; in the first, Bryant is about to hand his notes [sic] to his ghostwriter, Cynthia: “… an extremely skilled forger … a numismatist and IMHO a fine prose stylist … and … a terrible kleptomaniac.”; and in the last, he delivers the finished manuscript. Once again [or, more accurately, probably a virtually perennial Sword of Damocles], the PCU is under threat of closure, but this time, it is more than that: the sentence is in the process of being carried out, by “the barbarians … storming the gates of Rome” [specifically, “the Home Office agents in the employ of their police liaison CEO, Leslie Faraday”] thanks to a combination of authentic budget restrictions and the offence & outrage felt by the administrators of the aforementioned budget, as a result of the Unit’s actions—the previous story, The Lonely Hour, is referenced in this context. Arthur Bryant has gone missing, and there is also the not insignificant matter of his erstwhile partner John May’s recuperation, after being shot in the line of duty, so the latter’s movements are necessarily restricted, initially.
The Unit is permitted a reprieve of sorts, albeit an avowedly temporary one, after the Speaker of the House of Commons is almost murdered in a bizarre way—grist to the Unit’s mill, of course—when he is crushed under a large quantity of fresh oranges & lemons: ostensibly a delivery, rather than an obvious weapon, but one which was made in a life-threatening way; luckily for Michael Claremont, he survives being impaled by a shard of wood from one of the packing crates, but the attack frightens the government enough to allow London’s most unconventional police unit to investigate, hence the stay of execution. A short time prior to this, a bookshop in Bury Place, Bloomsbury, suffers an arson attack, and its owner, an expatriate Romanian, is arrested on suspicion of committing the crime, but subsequently, he apparently kills himself in his police cell; these two incidents are not initially linked, but Arthur Bryant is intrigued enough about the latter, especially given his love of esoteric bookshops, to try to discover the truth—indeed, promising the man’s widow that he will do just that. With regard to the former crime, he immediately latches onto the nursery rhyme significance, expecting a pattern of further attempts at murder to be carried out.
May wearies of home-bound recuperation so, as soon as he is physically able, he returns to work, and now that Bryant has returned from his sojourn of self-awareness—trying out various different forms of spiritual exploration—they work together again. More successful [for the unfortunate, but apparently unconnected victims] murders occur, and they appear to support Bryant’s theory about the nursery rhyme connection, and each time, the police come frustratingly close to preventing it, and apprehending the unknown perpetrator, but failing. In the meantime, Bryant deduces that the murderer, or the person ordering them, must be a very rich, and therefore powerful, businessman: but the problem is proving it. Following his movements doesn’t give the team any leads. The team has been supplemented by two new members: one is a young intern, who seems to have inveigled her way onto the team; and the other one is a young man, Timothy Floris, who is a liaison/observer from the Independent Police Complaints Division of the Home Office. The former is given to making mostly inexplicable, gnomic statements which demonstrate some sort of intelligence, whilst the latter appears determined to remain neutral.
The culprit is finally unmasked without any of the mayhem caused by Bryant in previous stories, but as usual, he seems to be the only member of the team with sufficient insight, albeit arrived at by a circuitous route, to perceive the truth. There are none of the repartee word games from previous stories in this one, but perhaps B&M have grown out of them? Or perhaps it is because of the circumstances under which they are having to work; probably a bit of both. Another very enjoyable edition in the series, and the next one, London Bridge is Falling Down, is eagerly awaited. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020, Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London] by Penguin/Bantam, ISBN 978-0-8575-0410-4.