Book Review

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The Lonely Hour, by Christopher Fowler

This book, the [somewhat unbelievably] eighteenth in the series featuring this detective pairing [although two of those are short stories], would appear, if the dénouement is anything to go by, to be pivotal; although, having not read any of the previous books, it is altogether possible that this outcome might be a regular occurrence, which is actually quite possible, given the nature of the setup. The two principal characters, British police detectives by the name of Arthur Bryant & John May—Bryant and May: more than a match for any other police duo, har har!—work for a fictitious department of the Metropolitan Police, called the Peculiar Crimes Unit which, to quote the book, is “A specialized [sic] London police division with a remit to prevent or cause to cease any acts of public affright or violent disorder committed in the municipal or communal areas of the city.”  It should be said, by way of context, that this description comes courtesy of the Unit Chief, Raymond Land [only semi-affectionately referred to as “Raymondo”, by Bryant], who is a rather pompous & ineffectual individual.

Despite these characters not existing in a fantasy world, there is something a bit Pratchett-like in the humour, which is definitely a plus, for me, and Philip Pullman is also given a nod; not that it is largely whimsical, because it does deal with the mundane problems of ‘real’ life. There is also an interesting mix of cultural references, including bang up to date with Uber, but also more whiskery ones, including “Ruth Ellis curls”, and the characters Julian & Sandy from Round the Horne. I was gratified that Fowler is careful with his writing, using the correct plural form of cul de sac [culs de sac, not cul de sacs, as I often see], and the feminine filipina, when referring to a Philippine woman; I did wonder, however, if he was trying just a tad too hard to impress us with his articulacy, albeit via the voice of Bryant, who is old enough to have retired years ago, but persists in working to keep his mind occupied; I used to enjoy the increase your wordpower [correct me if I’m wrong] section in Reader’s Digest, but there are too many arcane words in the narrative to list here, and it does become a wee bit tiresome encountering yet another word which one is never likely to need in normal situations [and don’t forget: “Nobody loves a smartarse!”].

The PCU has a pioneering approach: its founding principle is “to seek new ways of dealing with criminality and to ensure that these experimental methods found [sic] purchase within the legal system, creating precedence.” Given “the unit’s unprofessional approach to policing”, and the fact that the PCU only handles homicides, this unfortunately serves to infuriate every one of the twenty-four murder investigation teams within the Met. This story isn’t a whodunnit, because we encounter the perpetrator, albeit initially anonymous, right at the outset, although his backstory slowly emerges, so it is a whydunnit, and the tension builds through the narrative as the PCU team struggles to discover who is murdering a succession of apparently unconnected individuals, and why; although there are two elements which provide a link, albeit tenuous: the murder weapon, and the time of despatch—04:00, referred to eponymously as the lonely hour. Unsurprisingly, there are disruptive dynamics within the department, which hinder its operation somewhat, plus the ever-present threat to the department’s very existence, from the more dogmatic & less flexible overseers in the Met.

I appreciate that I have come to this series at a very late stage, by accident rather than design, so as stated, I don’t know how the pairing of the two detectives originated, and how the PCU was set up, but I like to think that this won’t be any sort of impediment to my enjoyment of any previous stories, should I find any, which I would be more than happy to, having enjoyed this one. Standard police procedurals can be easy to read, even undemanding, to some extent, but I think there is something attractive about the inclusion of slightly quirky characters, as some of these are; if only as an opportune avenue for offbeat humour. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Bantam; first published in 2019 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London, ISBN 978-0-8575-0408-1. Happy New Year!

Book Review

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Train Man, by Andrew Mulligan

This book is the author’s first adult novel; he is apparently “best known as a children’s author”, although I would correct that to: best known as an author of children’s literature [not the author of children!], and his experience as a teacher in the Philippines, as well as India, Brasil & Viet Nam, after ten years as a theatre director, was used to good effect in this story, albeit indirectly until the very end. The story was intended for a radio drama; again, he has ‘previous’, as a writer of radio plays & film scripts; but for unspecified reasons, that didn’t work out, so he turned it into a novel. Given that a large part of the book is given over to the thoughts & images which are running through the head of the main character, Michael MacMillan, I can understand that a radio drama would have worked quite well [difficulty of presenting images on the radio notwithstanding], but a novel is what was produced, although it can occasionally be a bit difficult to keep up with the instant changes of context which are all too easily conjured internally.

Michael is a deeply troubled man, and it is irrefutably not a plot spoiler to reveal that from the outset, he is planning to end his life. He considers himself a failure in all aspects of his life, not the least of which are his three romantic liaisons, only one of which came close to culminating in marriage; only staying alive, albeit unhappily, until the present moment could be considered any sort of success; so he is using some of the money which remains available to him, by using his sole still-valid credit card, to take a train journey north to an unprepossessing location to allow himself to be hit by a train and, inevitably, killed. He has left an explanatory note in his squalid flat, the only place he could afford to buy after having to sell his previous house, having virtually run out of money; and he has also left his mobile ‘phone behind. Unfortunately [or, possibly, fortunately, but that remains to be seen] for his plan, he is a very indecisive man, a character trait which has been significantly responsible for the morass of guilt & self-pity in which he currently finds himself, and with each new encounter, he visualises himself in potential outcomes, both as his current adult self, and the child who experienced certain things which moulded his personality, for better or worse; but almost inevitably, he construes it as the latter.

Along the way, during which time his plans change, for various reasons, he encounters other individuals, most of whom also have their own inner turmoil to deal with; he does also, however, encounter a few people who, merely by virtue of their helpful & accommodating nature, go some way toward restoring his faith in human nature, but this doesn’t initiate a change of plan, until he meets a Filipina woman: this is not the stereotypical ‘love conquers all’ scenario, though, but I won’t reveal any more, as it would spoil the plot. Maria is married, with children back at home in the Philippines, and she is travelling, expenses paid, to a beauty spot in the north of England in her holiday, as a favour to one of the rich residents of the care home in Dumfries, where she works.

Ruth Jones, the actor, who is also now an established novelist, describes this book as “Brilliant…Profoundly affecting”, and “A beautiful story. It broke my heart…but it also made my heart sing.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I found the book an engaging read; a change from murder mysteries & police procedurals; and I do like a happy ending. This paperback was published in 2020 by Vintage, London, a part of the Penguin Random House group of companies, ISBN 978-1-784-70975-4.