Wednesday, February 13, 2013

NEW STUFF: The Invisible Code - Christopher Fowler

Each new Bryant & May crime novel brings with it the anticipatory thrill of discovering more arcana of London that Christopher Fowler loves to share with his readers. (There should be a word for all these nuggets of England's past. Londoniana? Albionisms? Mull those over.) The latest escapade of the Peculiar Crimes Unit or PCU does not disappoint. Within the labyrinthine plot of The Invisible Code (2012) the reader is treated to the fascinating world of Sir John Soane's museum housed at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields; the secrets of the "Scarlet Thread" and what it means to the Knights Templar; St. Bride's, the church of journalists; and more tidbits about the occult that always work their way into the adventures London's much maligned and unappreciated specialized police squad. For fans of vintage crime and adventure novels there is the added bonus of allusions to the work of Dennis Wheatley and especially a particular title by Fritz Leiber.

Oskar Kasavian (familiarly known to the PCU staff as The Prince of Darkness), an executive in the Home Office, is the top level overseer of this unusual police unit set up to protect the public. He is also their number one enemy. For years Kasavian has been doing his best to shut them down and now Arthur Bryant and John May are surprised to be called into his office for a personal favor. He needs their specialized help in handling the embarrassing public behavior of his wife Sabira who is becoming increasingly erratic and violent. She's been raving about demons and witches and seems to have submerged herself into a world of paranoid imaginings. Kasavian thinks for that reason the PCU team are perfect for discovering the cause of Sabira's delusions. Or are they delusions? And what about the odd death of the woman found in St. Bride's Church who apparently was the target of some children playing an RPG called Witch Hunter? Like all PCU cases the coincidences prove to have more significance the further the team plows.

Arthur Bryant talks about the importance of connections and patterns at one point in the book. This is the basis for all the PCU books. There is a wealth of information that at first comes at the reader in random incidents, then are fired out in rapid succession. Fowler, unwittingly perhaps, is one of the greatest modern practitioners of an old subgenre known as the webwork novel. Harry Stephen Keeler was the best known American writer of webwork novels. He even wrote a manifesto -- "The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction" -- about the art of creating a single story out of random multiple narrative threads. John Russell Fearn, prolific British pulp magazine writer of SF and detective fiction, credited Keeler with influencing him in his SF webwork stories.

Synopsis in diagram form depicting the webwork plot of Keeler's Voice of the Seven Sparrows (1924)
Fowler's story incorporates the mysterious death of Amy O'Connor in the opening chapter, the death of a character in a previous novel, the madness of Sabira Kasavian, and several other apparently random acts of violence in a tour de force of webwork plotting. Webwork might be called the fictional counterpart of a conspiracy theorist's obsessive hunt for nefarious patterns real and imagined in the operations of global conglomerates and world politics. Allusions in The Invisible Code to modern paranoid thrillers like Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby and the movie The Parallax View add another level of enjoyment to the randomness that will eventually reveal a pattern of sinister construction. The novel is the best of this type I have read in all of the ten Bryant & May detective series. Though there is sometimes a tendency towards didactic dialogue passages -- the kind typified by forensic crime TV shows and The X Files -- Fowler mostly manages to introduce the Albionisms (I used it!) in a way that flows naturally out of the densely compacted action.

Bryant & May find a victim in St Bride's Church
(Artwork by Keith Page)
 The series characters each have a turn in the spotlight with some interesting developments in Janice Longbright's life and the usually bickering partnership of detective constables Colin Bimsley and Meera Mangeshkar. Dan Banbury and Giles Kershaw do their usual forensic wizardry in the morgue and in the technosphere. Maggie Armitage, the "white witch", is featured prominently offering much lore and occult knowledge to help Arthur Bryant in explaining some of the baffling elements of the case. And, finally, we are introduced to a new character, Mr. Merry, who appears to be a 21st century Aleister Crowley and who promises to be a formidable foe in the future books as hinted at in a teasing final chapter.

Sampling the escapades of the Peculiar Crimes Unit can be an addictive reading experience but also a dangerous one. In relating to us his love for all things bizarre and strange about the city he loves so unabashedly Fowler not only fuels a crime fiction lover's taste for the bizarre he is something of an alluring siren for the armchair traveller in all of us. He sings a song of London better than any music hall chanteuse. This armchair traveller has been tempted more than once to dip into the savings for a overseas trip to see up close and personal the many unusual places recounted in these extremely entertaining books. And that's the kind of connection I like between a writer and his readership.

Bryant & May and The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler
Transworld/Doubleday,  August 2012
ISBN: 978-0857520500 (hardcover in UK and Canada only)
GBP 16.99

Available as an eBook and audio book in the US now
US hardcover edition release date is unknown


  1. I'm glad you liked this one. I really liked THE MEMORY OF BLOOD and it revived my interest in this series, and Fowler seems to really be enjoying the new twists he put into the series in these most recent books. They were a blast to read, trickily plotted, and had some really creative ideas.

    I'm not entirely sure whether I'd compare Fowler to Keeler, but I have read only one Keeler so I really need more expertise on that front! :)

    1. I wasn't really comparing Fowler to Keeler. I was drawing an analogy between the webwork structure of this particular novel and the way Keeler built his plots. That's the real similarity. Everything eventually connects no matter how convoluted it may be seem. Keeler handles his webworks absurdly and comedically; Fowler has a simlar sense of wacky humor but in the end his take is more dramatic. In this novel there's a gravitas not seen too often in the B&M books. I think it was more effective this time.

  2. I love this series, John! Reviewed the last book on the blog, but haven't yet read this very latest one. Jeez, the books are coming at me fast and furious lately.

    (I was thrilled to get a comment from Christopher.)

    Anyway, LOVED your review - it pointed out things to me that I had only vaguely realized and thought about.

    My favorites in the series so far are the first and three books - if I'm remembering correctly - you know how that goes...

    I've been to London, but way before Christopher Fowler began his series. It's a wonderful city full of history and lore. You should definitely go.

  3. I have yet to dip my toe - but again you've persuaded me - as a confirmed Londoner it would be rude not to, clearly! Right, off to get hold of the first in the series (I likes my chronology I does) - cheers mate.

  4. I loved your review and heartily endorse your enjoyment of this series particularly this book and THE MEMORY OF BLOOD although THE WHITE CORRIDOR was a disappointment. I thoroughly enjoy the arcane bits of lore that go into forming these stories in regards to theatres, pubs, museums, churches et cetera. Probably my favourite current series. I look forward to an interesting duel with Mr. Merry.

  5. After starting the series in the middle I've gone back to reading them in order. I'm looking forward to this one, but it will be a while.

  6. This is a great review. My son really likes this series but I haven't been able to get into it. Although I do love the U.K. hardback covers. I bought the first one (which I did like a lot) and Off the Rails in that version. I have read the first three but have a ways to go to catch up. I will try approaching the next one as a tour of buildings, etc. from London's past.

  7. Thanks for a most perspicacious review! It's funny that although I'm a Londoner through & through, I spend all my spare time travelling to try and understand more of the world. London is frustrating, annoying, often depressing but also incredibly vibrant, exciting and exhausting - a good place to set any series.
    I'm already at work on volumes 11 and 12 - not bad for a series that one publisher could not see any mileage in!

    1. A visit from Admin! Thank you for stopping by, kind sir. Perspicacious is a grand word and I take it as a high compliment. Thanks for that, too. Coming soon -- a review fo the wonderful Casebook of Bryant & May. I only hope that it's volume one in another long-running series.