‘I knew that’: Christopher Fowler interviews himself
Christopher Fowler is the author of the brilliant Bryant and May novels. This February sees the paperback publication of the latest book in the series, Bryant & May: The Burning Man, in which an opportunistic killer uses the chaos surrounding a siege to exact revenge – using incendiary methods of execution.
Christopher is a Dead Good favourite and we devour new Bryant & May novels as soon as we’ve got our hands on them. We asked Christopher to tell us about his new book and fantastic detective duo and he obliged – by interviewing himself.
Christopher Fowler interviews himself
How did the idea of Bryant and May first come in to being?
Is that the most original question you can come up with? I wanted to create two Golden Age detectives in a modern setting. I made Bryant & May old to dispense with the ageism that suggests only the young can do their jobs well. Older characters bring a lifetime of experience. I started with a matchbox label that read “Bryant & May – England’s Glory”. That gave me their names, their nationality, and something vague and appealing, the sense of an institution with roots in London’s sooty past.
So what’s the new Bryant & May about then?
Bryant & May: The Burning Man is their twelfth novel. I hadn’t expected the series to last so long. In fact, the first book was written as a one-off. The idea of a couple of elderly, grumpy detectives doesn’t sound very appealing, but it seems to work and they have a growing number of fans.
So what is it about these two cantankerous old gits that makes them appealing to your readers?
I guess I can make them behave like experienced adults and immature children. I think heroes are often boring simply because they have to be appealingly young – well, Bryant & May don’t have to be; they’re as esoteric, eccentric, bad-tempered and weird as the villains, who in most books are more interesting than heroes.
Every case so far has had a touch of the macabre. In The Bleeding Heart the case revolved around a corpse appearing to come to life. In The Burning Man London almost falls to anarchists. What’s your fascination with the city’s dark side?
You have to remember that London has only just been lit up. Before the mid-1980s it was a city steeped in shadows which bred criminality. We lost something when the lights were turned up and the CCTV was turned on, and I try to recapture that lost sense.
There are lots of tiny corners of London that crop up in your books that sometimes make it feel like an A to Z of hidden London. Is it your mission to show readers these lost parts?
I spent my childhood charging around London’s West End, and each discovery I made revealed the tip of something else. If you poke about and talk to people you discover incredible riches. The Bleeding Heart started from watching office workers on lunch breaks sitting on gravestones without any idea of who was buried beneath them. The Burning Man began after watching footage of anti-capitalist protests around the Bank of England and thinking, ‘now there’s a good place to get away with a murder.’
So you’re saying you think like a serial killer.
Don’t put words in my mouth. But yes, I do, actually. Don’t eat all the biscuits.
You obviously do a lot of research on myths, folklore and the occult. Is it research for you or are you like a big kid in a sweet shop with this sort of stuff? As with Arthur Bryant, have you collected a raft of insider knowledge and contacts over the years?
I’m glad you asked me that. I love doing the research. My collection of London books is absurdly vast. London offers anachronistic juxtapositions – you’re likely to find a church on the site of a brothel – and it was important to find a way of reflecting this. Each story tries out a different kind of Golden Age mystery fiction: Full Dark House is a whodunnit; The Water Room is a locked-room puzzle; 77 Clocks is an adventure in the style of Bulldog Drummond – and so on up to the latest, which is a race against time. The unlikeliest elements of these tales are mined from London’s forgotten lore; tales of lost paintings, demonised celebrities, buried sacrifices, mysterious guilds and social panics.
Is it difficult to keep an ongoing series fresh and attractive to your readers?
I get bored easily, so I like to ring the changes a bit. I always wanted to explore my detectives’ careers from beginning to end, so I started with an origin story using the setting of old London theatres. London is full of unusual characters, so I use a lot of people I’ve met, including British Museum academics, artists, lecturers, a white witch, a scientist, members of the Gilbert and Sullivan society – all real (but exaggerated by the time I’ve finished with them). However, you can expect a major development to the series in The Burning Man.
Which is what, exactly?
If I told you, I’d have to kill you. You’ve eaten all my biscuits now. Go on, bugger off.