Bryant & May: Hall of Mirrors

A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery

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London, 1969. With the Swinging Sixties under way, Detectives Arthur Bryant and John May find themselves caught in the middle of a good, old-fashioned manor house murder mystery.

Hard to believe, but even positively ancient sleuths like Bryant and May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit were young once . . . or at least younger. Flashback to London 1969: mods and dolly birds, sunburst minidresses—but how long would the party last?

After accidentally sinking a barge painted like the Yellow Submarine, Bryant and May are relegated to babysitting one Monty Hatton-Jones, the star prosecution witness in the trial of a disreputable developer whose prefabs are prone to collapse. The job for the demoted detectives? Keep the whistle-blower safe for one weekend.

The task proves unexpectedly challenging when their unruly charge insists on attending a party at the vast estate Tavistock Hall. With falling stone gryphons, secret passageways, rumors of a mythical beast, and an all-too-real dismembered corpse, the bedeviled policemen soon find themselves with “a proper country house murder” on their hands.

Trapped for the weekend, Bryant and May must sort the victims from the suspects, including a hippie heir, a blond nightclub singer, and Monty himself—and nobody is quite who he or she seems to be.

Praise for Bryant & May: Hall of Mirrors

“Arthur Bryant has written his memoirs—and a jolly good yarn they make, too. . . . As always in this series, this one’s a lark.”The New York Times Book Review

“[Hall of Mirrors is] a largely comic escapade whose tone evokes both the biting wit of Evelyn Waugh and the slapsticker shenanigans of P.G. Woodhouse.”The Wall Street Journal

“More fully fleshed-out suspects, clues, red herrings, twists, and honest mystery and detection than in the last three whodunits you read.”Kirkus Reviews

“The narrative [veers] between laugh-out-loud funny to macabre. . . . Eccentric and consistently entertaining.”Booklist

“Fowler evokes the period as neatly as he crafts the plot.”Publishers Weekly

“Wonderful.”Deadly Pleasures

“So Agatha Christie (intentionally). And as in a Christie, nothing is quite what it seems as one murder follows another. Love the butler.”Poisoned Pen Newsletter

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Bryant & May: Hall of Mirrors

1.

Get Back

‘Considering they’re written by an elderly police detective with a faulty memory,’ Arthur Bryant’s editor said as he perused the cheaper end of the wine list, ‘your memoirs have sold rather well.’

‘Not well enough to earn me any money,’ Bryant replied, cleaning his fork on the end of his tie.

Simon Sartorius ignored the jibe. He was a gentleman of the old school. The phrase ‘hale and hearty’ might have been coined for him. He favoured striped shirts from Turnbull & Asser, cuff links, blazers and comfortable Oxford toe caps, and probably owned a straw Panama for his holidays in Provence. His spectacle-­clad eyes always smiled and his face appeared naturally cheerful in repose. It was why Bryant had selected him. Such a man, he felt, would always be honest and patient, or at the very least polite.

For his part, Simon was already starting to regret taking his author to lunch today. It wasn’t that he disliked Bryant in any way; he simply could not understand what the fellow was about. There was an air of devilry about him that made you want to keep checking on the cutlery.

Wedged in the gloomiest corner of an alcove in a Chelsea restaurant that validated its shabbiness by being French, Bryant had reluctantly parted with his overcoat but had managed to outwit the waiter and hang on to his immense rainbow-­striped scarf. The thing was draped around his neck like a shedding boa constrictor.

‘Of course,’ Simon said, ‘some less charitable critics have suggested that your first volume should have been filed under Fantasy.’

Bryant shrugged. ‘What is reality?’

‘Well, it’s the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional sense of them.’ The editor liked to be clear about these matters.

‘That’s easy for you to say.’ Bryant checked his huge white false teeth in the blade of his knife. ‘My memories are like patches of old road that have to be repaired now and again. Everyone knows that memories become real over time.’

‘Nevertheless, if readers buy your memoirs expecting a realistic account of life in one of London’s special detection units and find themselves with a volume of speculative fiction, they should really be informed,’ said Simon, not unreasonably.

‘I don’t see why,’ Bryant replied. ‘They happily believe the tabloids.’

Simon understood that cheeriness would always achieve more than antagonism, so he ploughed on. ‘I do think that telling them you were investigating crimes during the Blitz is pushing it a bit.’ He searched in vain for a waiter. ‘Perhaps a tad more honesty next time?’

Bryant mimed affront. ‘I’ll have you know I keep detailed notes. Mistakes sometimes occur in translation.’

‘Why do your notes need translating?’

‘I write them in Aramaic. It’s a three-­thousand-­year-­old language so I have to make up a lot of words.’

‘But you change things around,’ said Simon helplessly. ‘The Leicester Square Vampire, for example. I’ve read at least three accounts of that particular investigation, all of them quite different.’

‘That’s because there’s my version, the official version and the truth.’

‘And you hold information back.’ Simon raised his eyebrows and index finger to a waiter who, being French, ignored him. ‘For example, why won’t you admit your age to anyone?’

‘Because at my age you only admit it to your doctor. It takes me so long to scroll down to my year of birth on computers that I start to wonder if they’ll actually have it. Are you sure there’s still a market for my memoirs?’

‘Oh, absolutely,’ said Simon with conviction. ‘These are strange times, and readers need to be taken out of themselves.’

‘I suppose in a world of clickbait and slut-­shaming my little anecdotes are charmingly anachronistic.’ Bryant didn’t actually know what those things were; he had heard someone at work mention them.

Simon felt a frown furrowing his brain and fought it back. ‘Then I dare say we’ll soldier on with another volume if you can stand it. It was terribly unfortunate that your previous biographers had such rotten luck . . .’

‘What with one being murdered, you mean,’ said Bryant. Slouched back in his chair, he appeared about to vanish beneath the table. His fringe was white and vertical, his azure eyes as round as buttons. The editor felt as if he were having lunch with a teddy bear.

‘Ah, the murder. That was a bit of a sticky wicket.’ Simon caught the waiter’s eye again and tried to magnetize him. ‘None of us expected her to up stumps and retire to the pavilion like that. Still, the innings isn’t over yet, is it?’

‘We never played cricket at school,’ said Bryant, who had hardly ever attended school, let alone played a competitive sport.

‘Oh, right.’ Simon assumed everyone had played for their county at least once, so Bryant’s remark made no sense to him.

‘I can’t write the memoirs myself,’ said Bryant. ‘I tend to wander off.’

‘We’ll have to find you someone who can.’ He returned to the safer ground of the wine list. ‘They do a rather pleasing Crozes-­Hermitage here. Young but robust,’ he added before realizing that his lunch companion was neither.

The waiter finally dragged himself over and took the wine order. Bryant looked about while his editor discussed the wine in flawless French. The restaurant was a mahogany funeral parlour swathed in brocaded crimson curtains, dimly lit by art nouveau lamps. It served its steaks rare and its puddings well done, and if you didn’t like it you probably went to a comprehensive school and jolly well needed to learn some manners.

Simon tucked in his napkin immaculately but somewhat prematurely, an indication that he had attended a boarding school. ‘I was wondering if you had a subject in mind for a follow-­up volume, something that would really raise your batting average? You must have a nice juicy crime up your sleeve, an investigation that you’ve never been able to talk about. One of those cases that took place in the days before psychological profiling or counselling.’ He broke open a pensionable bread roll. ‘If you can come to the crease with a first-­class game we might take the Ashes with this one.’

‘Phones,’ said Bryant, exploding his bread and swathing it in butter.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘You said “before psychological profiling or counselling.” For us it was phones. They changed everything. Policing is about evidence. Finding out what’s real or false, who’s telling the truth, who’s withholding information. Back in the 1970s we were taught to shout at crime-­scene bystanders: “Did anyone see what happened?” I don’t need to tell you how that turned out. We used to rely on public requests, sightings, interviews, till receipts, bus tickets. As soon as people started using mobiles they left a trail wherever they went. We didn’t have to trust hearsay any more. Before, we had to rely on finding a telephone box. Now we search online records.’

‘Yes, but it’s not terribly dramatic,’ Simon pointed out, ‘running through phone numbers on a screen.’

‘It’s still more interesting than life in the Met,’ said Bryant cheerfully. ‘Their crime scenes end up looking like film sets. Too many officers hanging around with nothing to do. The annual London murder rate is too low, always around the one hundred mark in a city that’s heading for nine million residents. Pathetic. So naturally everybody wants to attend one. A lot of coppers never get the chance any more. It’s like signing up for a safari expecting to see a lion roar and coming back having seen two monkeys and something scratching itself in a mud pool.’

‘That’s a good thing, though, isn’t it? Surely one doesn’t want murderers to score more than a century?’

‘Knife culture has left every disenfranchised teenager with a chip on his shoulder thinking it’s acceptable to carry one of these.’ Bryant twanged his knife on the table for emphasis, making nearby diners look over. ‘Stabbings are banal tragedies committed over trivialities. Even George Orwell bemoaned the declining quality of English murder.’

Simon’s brow knitted. ‘But the Peculiar Crimes Unit specialized in cases liable to cause public disorder, no? Wasn’t there ever an investigation that changed you, perhaps when you were younger?’ He stared at his luncheon guest and tried to imagine what he had been like as a young man, but the effort was too demanding.

‘Funnily enough I was thinking about one such case just the other day,’ said Bryant. ‘Although it was a bit of an oddity, even for us, and the outcome wasn’t at all what anyone expected.’

‘I wouldn’t worry too much about that,’ said Simon hopefully. ‘I’m sure we can find a biographer who’ll spice it up a bit, give our readers a bit more bang for their buck, so to speak.’

‘That’s not normally necessary. We’ve come across some killers who’ve made Titus Andronicus look like Rupert Bear. But now that I think back, this one did play out rather like an Agatha Christie novel.’

‘Unguessable?’

‘Unbelievable. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The beauty of Christie is that beneath all the rubbish about strychnine and vicars there’s usually a simple unconscious truth.’ Bryant’s aqueous blue eyes searched the ceiling as he ransacked his memory. ‘It was the sort of thing that could only have happened in the 1960s, when everything was less examined. We were young and naïve. There was so much that was new to us. By today’s standards the situation was utterly absurd, of course. In those days we were academics, mainly working on abstract scenarios. If we’d been more experienced in the field and had taken everything a little more seriously, I imagine the outcome might have been different.’

‘It sounds promising.’ The wine arrived. ‘Ah, Château Screwtop.’ Simon gave a small wince of apology that said, Publishing margins are tight and you don’t shift enough copies to warrant something with a cork.

Bryant was oblivious. ‘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. I dare say you recall that year . . .’

For a brief moment Simon’s naturally cheery face clouded. ‘I’m not actually old enough, Mr Bryant.’

‘Really?’ Bryant peered closely at him. ‘You do surprise me. You must be married. Of course it’s hard to explain just how strange the sixties were to people who weren’t around then. What is it they say? “If you can remember the sixties you weren’t there.” Mind you, I can’t remember going to the barber’s yesterday. I looked in the mirror this morning and got quite a shock.’

‘I was just starting prep school,’ said Simon helplessly.

‘Back then I was not the wrinkled wreck you see before you,’ Bryant continued, oblivious. ‘I was young and lithe. Young, anyway. I’ve always been a tad portly.’ He prodded his stomach with his knife. ‘Luckily, waistcoats were fashionable. I had energy, zip, get-­up-­and-­go. It was a thrilling time to be alive. Everything was fresh; everything was new. I bought a kipper tie. I met a girl. I punched a capitalist. I smoked my first joint.’

‘I think we can leave out that part,’ said Simon.

Bryant loosened a coil of his scarf and raised his hands as if framing a picture. ‘Let me set the scene for you. Overnight the country went from monochrome to Technicolor, from austerity to abundance. The Rolling Stones. The Kinks. David Hockney. Mary Quant.’

- About the author -

Christopher Fowler is the acclaimed author of the award-winning Full Dark House and eleven other Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries: The Water Room, Seventy-Seven Clocks, Ten Second Staircase, White Corridor, The Victoria Vanishes, Bryant & May on the Loose, Bryant & May off the Rails, The Memory of Blood, The Invisible Code, Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart, and Bryant & May and the Burning Man. In 2015, Fowler won the coveted Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library Award in recognition for his body of work. He lives in London, where he is at work on his next Peculiar Crimes Unit novel, Bryant & May: Strange Tide.

More from Christopher Fowler

Bryant & May: Hall of Mirrors

A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery

Buy

Bryant & May: Hall of Mirrors

— Published by Bantam —