Friday, January 31, 2020

Review of Seventy Seven Clocks by Christopher Fowler (2005, Bantam)

Late 1973. An elderly lawyer is killed by a snake bite, dying in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel. A member of the wealthy, aristocratic Whitstable family is blown up on a train after destroying a painting in the national gallery. His brother is murdered a short time later. Bryant and May, detectives with the Met’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, quickly discover that the lawyer acted for the Whitstables but have few leads and no sense of the motivation behind the deaths. Moreover, they seem powerless to stop other members of the eccentric family being murdered. The posh but troubled receptionist in the Savoy is running her own investigation, despite being warned to leave the detection to the police. Sam is seemingly making progress, but has also attracted potentially fatal attention. Unravelling the mystery of the Whitstables’ assassinations is a tricky task, but gradually, Bryant, May and Sam start to make headway, linking the crimes back to the formation of a secret society 100 years before.

Seventy Seven Clocks is the third book in the Bryant and May series set in London. In this outing, set at the tail end of 1973, the Peculiar Crimes Unit is investigating a set of bizarre deaths linked to the wealthy, aristocratic, haughty Whitstable family and a sub-group of the guild of watchmakers. Everything about the case is peculiar, which suits Bryant and May, though its political ramifications and its coincidence with moving offices is a nuisance. The involvement of a troubled hotel receptionist is also a hindrance, though she is also has the habit of discovering useful clues and is determined to succeed where the police are failing. As the death count rises it seems that there is a group of assassins set on wiping out the entire Whitstable family. Unravelling the reason why is far from straightforward given the conspiracy of silence surrounding the Whitstables. Fowler plots a complex case that has plenty of mystery and intrigue. Given the PCU focuses on the fantastical and unusual, it’s no surprise that it’s a somewhat unbelievable. That’s fine as it’s all consistently realised and often fascinating. However, the role of Sam stretched coincidence to breaking point a few times in terms of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and family connections. While she’s a nice character, she was also too often used as a plot device to move the story forward. Other than that, it’s a fun and absorbing read chocked full of interested historical titbits about London and its institutions.

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