The Memory of Blood by Christopher Fowler
In a novel set, in part, among theatricals, it’s appropriate to reflect on the world of the Green Room where those not actually on stage, have the chance to talk to each other. Many of these conversation are wonderfully catty with all kinds of nicely malicious asides and observations. People who live in each other’s emotional pockets know where all the bodies are buried and are not afraid to exhume them. In the open chapters of The Memory of Blood by Christopher Fowler (Random House, 2012), the ninth in the Bryant & May series and one of the so-called Peculiar Crimes Unit Mysteries, we have some hilarious moments. There’s a delightful eavesdropping quality about them. Indeed, I suspect many of the one-liners are real, meticulously collected by our author at smart pubs, clubs and restaurants around London.
Howsoever they come to be here, the result is a pleasingly refreshing way of introducing our cast of investigators and those who may, with the exception of the victims, properly be considered suspects. Although, of course, the fact this pair of detectives are involved doesn’t mean the actual cast of suspects will be artificially limited. After all, when you find Mr Punch in a heap on the floor in a locked room, you naturally assume he’s just thrown the baby out of the window, shouting, “That’s the way to do it!” True to form, you’d find Punch’s wooden hands fit the bruises on the baby’s neck. Then an independent witness comes forward. She’s German and therefore has no sense of humour. She’s also blessed with artistic talents and draws Punch’s face as the dwarf who opened the window in the flat opposite and threw out the baby. Naturally, we must now consider the case solved. It’s an application of the rule derived from one of the first cases involving a false report of crime. A man rushed into a police station and alleged that, every morning when he looked in the mirror, he found cuts on his face — evidence someone was trying to kill him as he slept. It turned out, while still half-asleep, he was using a blunt razor to shave. His name was Occam. All doubt as to Punch’s guilt is dispelled when Jack Ketch, Punch’s hangman, is found next to a suspended body. It must be supernatural with golems and demonic possession of dolls like Chucky in the frame as the killers. Or perhaps the dolls are automata or radio-controlled killing machines.
Far more interesting is the death of Anna Marquand, the woman researcher and ghost writer who’s been working on Bryant’s biography. It seems an unlikely coincidence she should die immediately after talking to her celebrity author. Then, after taking a swim to clear her head of irrelevant details, DS Janice Longbright confirms a theft of the manuscript was the motive for what was probably murder. Feeling the need to follow the trail to the end, she takes the lead in the investigation only to find herself in ever deeper waters and in need of a paddle. It’s a shame Bryant and May are so preoccupied with Punch and Judy, although which one gets to date Punch is not disclosed.
In the primary case, the Devil is in the detail although, this particular devil is more chaotic in nature and called Punch. Christopher Fowler is completely fascinating on the meaning of Punch, the Victorian preoccupation with automata and the tradition of Grand Guignol. For example, did you know George Cruikshank illustrated a Punch and Judy book? Well, neither did I nor, until it was pointed out, did I understand why I needed to know George’s secret life with ink and pen. This characterises this novel as jam-packed with esoteric pieces of information. Individually, this data may appear completely irrelevant but, in a world where outside-the-box thinking requires connections to be made between facts in defiance of conventional rules, we arrive at a perfectly logical explanation for everything, plus an ingenious way of getting the suspect to confess. Bryant and May are on top form with admirable back-up from everyone else in the team.
The Memory of Blood is an intoxicating ride. Not, you understand, that there’s any need to consume copious amounts of alcohol to maximise enjoyment. Christopher Fowler has produced a champagne mystery where merely opening the covers and breathing in the first bubbles leads to instant bliss. This is supremely enjoyable and should be uncorked and consumed with the minimum of delay. And, as a final thought, never underestimate the power of a garden gnome in the hands of a helpless old woman.
For a review of another book by Christopher Fowler, see Plastic.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.