"Why, you little blockhead, I'll whittle you down to a coat hanger..."- W.C. Fields
Thirteen years ago, Christopher Fowler's Full Dark House (2003) was published and introduced what, arguably, are the first Great Detective of the 21st century: two nonagenarian detectives, named Arthur Bryant and John May, who have been leading a contingent of special investigators since the 1940s – known as the Peculiar Crimes Unit.
Peculiar Crimes Unit was founded "soon after the outbreak of the Second World War" as "part of the government initiative to ease the burden on London’s overstretched Metropolitan Police Force."
Staff members have always comprised of outsiders and radical freethinkers who were, initially, tasked with handling investigations "deemed uniquely sensitive" and "a high risk to public morale." But over the decades, not everyone understood that peculiar was originally meant in the sense of particular.
Consequently, the unit found themselves in charge of a large number of extraordinary, bizarre and seemingly impossible crimes – which even included several locked room murders. So it's not surprising the series was part of the first wave of contemporary mysteries that slowly convinced me that, perhaps, not everything written after the Golden Age was complete tripe.
I discovered the Peculiar Crimes Unit series in 2007 and was an unapologetic, fundamental classicist in those days, but, despite my rabid hatred for modern, character-orientated and socially concerned crime novels, I plunged headfirst into Full Dark House, The Water Room (2004), Seventy-Seven Clocks (2005) and Ten Second Staircase (2006). They challenged my preconceived notion of the genre and genuinely loved the journey, but, sadly, my interest began to wane after White Corridor (2007). The books morphed from wildly imaginative, neo-Victorian crime novels into regular police procedurals with some weird elements.
After reading Off the Rails (2010), I decided to take a break from the series, which continued until this very blog-post, but only a year after dropping out I began to read how The Memory of Blood (2011) had reinvigorated the series by cutting back on the social commentary and refocused on the plot – going back to what the series originally was. And it only took me about five years to verify this for myself.
The Memory of Blood is the ninth entry in the series and, just like the first book, has a theatrical setting. So it really is a rebirth, of sorts, for the PCU.
Robert "Julius" Kramer is a self-made man who became a millionaire before his twenty-fifth birthday, which he celebrated by "informing his loyal girlfriend that he was now rich" and "dumping her." Kramer is not a pleasant person, but that’s to be expected from someone whose role model is Mr. Punch. It allows him to be as "pugnacious, amoral, murderously strong-willed" as he wants in order to "rise above mere morality" and he bought the New Strand Theatre to indulge in his theatrical hobby. He even slapped his own theater company together.
The first of his lurid, trashy and sensational plays, The Two Murderers, is about to open and to celebrate the occasion Kramer is hosting a party at his London penthouse, but there's a bad and tense atmosphere – amplified by the gloomy weather outside. You would expect this to be the moment a steak knife is plunged in Kramer's back, but the murderer among them has struck somewhere else in the house.
Kramer's second, much younger wife, Judith, finds the door to the upstairs room of their infant son, Noah, locked from the inside and the door has to be broken down. What they found is unsettling: a window that was supposed to be locked was wide open and an antique, grotesque-looking puppet of Mr. Punch was lying in the middle of the room. The small body of Noah was found beneath the window and a post-mortem examination reveals he was violently shaken, strangled and flung out of the window, but what's really remarkable is that Mr. Punch's hands "exactly fit the bruises on Noah Kramer's neck" – suggesting that the Victorian-era puppet had come to life to fulfill "his mythical destiny to become a murderer." All of that happened inside a locked nursery with an open window affording no escape to a murderer.
It's a dark, grisly and gruesome murder, but finding the person who's responsible turns out to be very similar to "playing some elaborate version of Cluedo" and they’ve some work to do before they can identify their "Colonel Mustard in the sodding library with the lead pipe."
There's no shortage of potential suspects: there's the leading man, Marcus Sigler, who has been having an affair with Judith and sneaked out of the party with the new assistant stage manager, Gail Strong, which gave Robert Kramer a strong motive as well. Ray Pryce is the "archetypical angry playwright" and part of the anger comes from the greediness of the producer, Gregory Baine, who has stopped salaries and put everyone on a profit-share. Something that can be manipulated by fiddling with the books and therefore Kramer and Baine would've to payout less to the cast and crew. One of them is a brilliant set-designer, Ella Maltby, who's responsible for bringing a wax dummy to life during the first act of the play and that's an interesting talent when you're dealing with an apparent homicidal puppet, but these are only a handful of people who were present at the party and could've fulfilled the role of killer – since everyone in close proximity to Kramer seems to have had a reason to harm or hurt him.
The investigation takes place while the PCU is settling into their new office building, which was once the dwelling of the infamous Aleister Crowley, but their situation seems to get gradually a bit better. Bryant found a new member to the team hidden in the attic: a dusty, cobweb-covered automaton of a fortune-teller that spits out cards with vague, cautiously worded predictions on them. Of course, Bryant has a pocketful of old coins to feed to automaton. Even Raymond Land, who has been the temporary acting head of the PCU for many years, seems to finally come to peace with his fate of being stuck there.
However, there are some things that never change: the ever-subversive Oskar Kasavian is still attempting to get the PCU shutdown and a new, ongoing sub-plot appears to have been set-up in the background, which happens when the editor of Bryant's memoirs succumbs to bacteria poisoning and something rather important is missing – a disc containing information of a number of important cases from the unit's past. The Leicester Square Vampire, who killed John May's daughter, and the storyline about Mr. Fox from the previous two books, covered such previous plot-strands that ran through several books. I have no idea which direction this storyline will take, but, as of now, it seems interesting.
But all of that takes place in the background. The Memory of Blood is a very plot-oriented detective story, but one with sharp characterization and a great theatrical background that's steeped in puppet lore and London's unique history. That has always been a major asset to the PCU series: Fowler's deep-rooted love for London's history. I don't remember any of the other books to be as sound in plot as this one. The clueing is a bit clunky here and there, they were too obvious or given too late, but they were present and Fowler provided answers as to why (and how) the handprints of a puppet were on the throat of a dead baby. Or how the murderer was able to improvise a locked room trick on the spot. It's a simple method that's derived from an old trick, but I rather liked it when place in the overall plot of the book.