03 June 2009
Christopher Fowler: THE SEVENTY SEVEN CLOCKS
Anglo-American detective fictioneer Raymond Chandler, in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," described the difference between British and American mysteries better than anybody before or since. British detectives piece together singular clues to uncover elaborate and altogether unrealistic murder plots; American detectives get beat up a lot, and sometimes figure out who killed who, but sometimes don't, or don't care (Chandler, as I explained above, said this way better). More than half a century later, the British are still striving for mastery of the "esoteric / arcane murder plot" genre. Some writers are more successful than others (I'd count Jonathan Barnes among the surefire successes, and as the most brilliant contemporary British writer I've have the opportunity to read), but I'm not yet sure just where to place Christopher Fowler. His Peculiar Crimes Unit series chronicles the teamwork of Metropolitan Police detectives Arthur Bryant and John May. One of them is a cranky genius, the other a hardworking womanizer. I think Bryan is the former and May the latter, but don't quote me on it. In The Seventy Seven Clocks, Bryant and May encounter what I hazard to guess must have been one of their more devious adversaries, and uncover an aged and secret plot involving London's craft guilds and the pre-Raphaelite painters. And, for good measure, just about everything else you can think of (Yep, Raymond Chandler told us so). As convoluted as the book's plot is, it's at least that entertaining, and I wouldn't hesitate to give Fowler my full-fledged endorsement did he not seem to be a little too smart for his own good. The plot is a little too twisted, and thus the book a little too long in unraveling it. I know that length sells these days, but it doesn't a classic make--that's why I wouldn't give Seventy Seven Clocks any more than, say, a mid-range B. Fowler's challenge in the future will either be shortening his books, or making them seem like they actually need to be this long, and aren't just gratuitously bulky.