September 30, 2011 9:54 pm

Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood

Mr Punch and paranormal activity colour the ninth outing of Christopher Fowler’s crime series

Robert Kramer is a ruthless property developer-turned-theatrical impresario – a sort of malevolent fusion of Donald Trump and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But when he throws a party at his £4m central London penthouse to celebrate the launch of his new production the evening ends in tragedy. His baby son, Noah, is taken from his bed, severely shaken and defenestrated.

How did the boy die? His bedroom door was locked from the inside and the only clue is a sinister Mr Punch figure left behind.

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Enter Arthur Bryant and John May, senior detectives at the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), an obscure crime-fighting arm of the state in perpetual competition with the Metropolitan Police. The Memory of Blood is their ninth outing in FT crime reviewer Christopher Fowler’s charming and quirky series and is a pleasurably intelligent read.

Like all the best crime-fighting duos, Bryant and May seem unlikely partners. Bryant is past retirement age, walks with a stick, smokes cannabis, goes off on obscure intellectual tangents and leaves a trail of physical chaos behind him.

May drives a silver BMW, has subversive contacts and is a ­techno-geek with a legion of gadgets lined up on his desk. Yet the two men’s loyalty to one another is never in doubt.

The PCU is aptly headquartered in a house that once hosted an assortment of spiritualists and mystics, including Aleister Crowley, and the building itself is a character, cranky one day, welcoming the next.

Fowler is a deft guide to an other-worldly London, where hunches and premonitions are important as physical evidence and every building holds the energy of those who once lived there and those who still frequent it now. Fowler also neatly explains the hidden and very dark, social and historical symbolism of Mr Punch and his theatrical cohorts. The wooden puppets seem so menacing by the book’s end that it is a wonder they were ever considered suitable entertainment for children. Mr Punch too, it seems, has a memory of blood.

Adam LeBor is author of ‘The Budapest Protocol’ (Beautiful Books)

Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood, by Christopher Fowler, Doubleday, RRP£16.99, 352 pages

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