When John looked at the posturing actresses angling their best sides to the audience, he saw nothing but mannequins and painted flats. Arthur saw something fleeting and indefinable. He saw the promises of youth made flesh, something beautiful and distant, a spontaneous gaiety forever denied to a man who couldn’t open his mouth without thinking.
The premise is promising – a secretive, small unit within the London police apparatus, devoted to handling cases that fall outside the parameters of science and reason. The Peculiar Crimes Unit exists for cases with hints of witchcraft, the paranormal, and myth. The actual execution of Full Dark House, first in a series by Christopher Fowler, however, was at once delightful and disappointing to this reader.
The Peculiar Crimes Unit’s primary investigators are two men, very different but complementary. John May is handsome and affable, a man who prefers reason and hard evidence. Arthur Bryant is dumpy and socially awkward, fascinated with the esoteric and the arcane. In spite of their differences, they are devoted friends.
The story is told in “envelope” form. The outside envelope is set in the present day, when John is called to view the smoking ruins of their office, destroyed by a bomb. Arthur’s body is taken away from it. Grieving, John makes up his mind to discover the guilty party, despite the fact that he recently retired (improbably, in his 90s). Arthur (also improbably) had stayed on in the Unit.
John’s inquiries convince him that the bombing is related to their first case together, back when they were very young policemen promoted to detective ahead of schedule due to wartime manpower shortages. A ballerina was discovered murdered in the Palace Theatre – her feet cut off. A string of murders followed in the same building, in the midst of the even greater horror of the London Blitz. Their suspicions came to center on the theater’s owner, a Greek millionaire with a grudge to settle, but some surprises were in store.
What I liked best about Full Dark House was the prose. Author Fowler is an excellent stylist. He can put a sly (and hilarious) slant on seemingly ordinary sentences, making reading his work a delight. His characters and dialogue are also quite good.
But the plot didn’t work for me. I found the final resolution improbable and overly convoluted (and not because of paranormal elements). Also there were some subtle hints of leftist politics. And there’s the eternal problem for the Christian, so common in supernatural stories, of the treatment of witchcraft and the occult as positive (or at least neutral) forces.
So I can’t recommend Full Dark House to our readers, despite some superior qualities.