Today I’m pleased to welcome Christopher Fowler, author of the award-winning Bryant and May series to the blog. Here Christopher talks about the puzzles, jokes and references hidden in his Bryant and May series.
The Tricks Behind Bryant & May
Mystery authors can be tricksters; some of us like to hide puzzles, jokes and references inside our books – we can’t resist it. Musicians do it all the time, and I’ve been doing it for years in the Bryant & May books. The most obvious joke is the names of the detectives, which were taken from a matchbox (this will be made more explicit in an upcoming volume of Bryant & May short stories exploring their lost cases).
A number of characters came from my love of old forgotten British comedies. Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright is clearly an amalgam of several policewomen. I couldn’t take any characteristics from the best one, the long-suffering Ruby Gates, played by Joyce Grenfell in the original St Trinian’s films, because they didn’t suit her character. In one of the films Gates, who is in love with her sergeant, gets hauled over the coals for missing a police broadcast after he finds that the channel was tuned to one playing romantic music. Her response; ‘Oh Sammy, you used to call me your little blue-lamp baby.’ This is only funny if you can picture her.
Instead I borrowed a little from Eleanor Summerfield’s character in the Norman Wisdom film ‘On The Beat’, wherein the sergeant has to avoid suspicion during her investigation of a hairdresser’s by repeatedly having her hair done under the name of Lucinda Wilkins. As the film progresses, she ends up with such strange hairdos that the other officers all stare at her. Here she is meeting gangland boss-cum-hairdresser Wisdom for the first time.
There are also bits of Diana Dors, Liz Fraser, Sabrina and other pin-up models from the 1950s, but to this I’ve added the toughness of a Googie Withers in ‘It Always Rains On Sunday’ and Barbara Windsor in ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’. The first film is explicitly mentioned in one of the PCU bulletins that always start off the novels.
Arthur Bryant’s run-ins with his doctor are parodies of Galton & Simpson’s work with Tony Hancock, and with a scene from ‘On The Beat’ in which Norman Wisdom sings an eye-chart. Bryant’s landlady started out as an Antiguan version of Irene Handl (whom I once spent an enjoyable afternoon with) in ‘The Rebel’. The name of Dame Maude Hackshaw, one of Maggie Armitage’s coven, is taken from a St Trinian’s film, as is the idea of the two Daves never leaving the PCU office.
‘The Victoria Vanishes’ is a direct homage to Edmund Crispin’s ‘The Moving Toyshop’, one of my favourite Golden Age mysteries. I’ve also broken the ‘fourth wall’ a few times in the style of Crispin.
One of my favourite movie puzzles is hidden in the swinging London film ‘Smashing Time’; if you put together all the character names in the film you get the first verse of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. I’ve been trying to set something like that up for years. There are puns and character names hidden all over the place; things like this keep us sad blokes amused as we write.
“Why would I have picked forgotten B movies to take homages from instead of serious-minded British films? Because I like the peripheral pleasures of small films. These were the last series of home-grown movies made without Hollywood interference. Most aren’t terribly good but they have strange moments and quirky characters.
Artist Keith Page made some of these homages clearer in his drawings for the Bryant & May graphic novel, ‘The Casebook of Bryant & May’, packing his scenes with recognisable character actors.
There are other references to mysteries in the books, most notably to Robert Louis Stevenson and R Austin Freeman. Agatha Christie would have been a little too obvious, I felt. One day I might catalogue all of the jokes and puzzles tucked in the pages, but for now I’ll let you spot them if you can.
About the book
The Burning Man is the latest in the Bryant and May series and is out now.
“London is under siege. A banking scandal has filled the city with violent protests, and as the anger in the streets detonates, a young homeless man burns to death after being caught in the crossfire between rioters and the police.
But all is not as it seems; an opportunistic killer is using the chaos to exact revenge, but his intended victims are so mysteriously chosen that the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in to find a way of stopping him.
Using their network of eccentric contacts, elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May hunt down a murderer who adopts incendiary methods of execution. But they soon find their investigation taking an apocalyptic turn as the case comes to involve the history of mob rule, corruption, rebellion, punishment and the legend of Guy Fawkes.
At the same time, several members of the PCU team reach dramatic turning points in their lives – but the most personal tragedy is yet to come, for as the race to bring down a cunning killer reaches its climax, Arthur Bryant faces his own devastating day of reckoning.
‘I always said we’d go out with a hell of a bang,’ warns Bryant.”