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Thursday, February 4, 2021

Bryant & May: Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler

Bantam, 464 pages, $28.99

How strange! That’s something a reader might say at any point in reading one of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May books. In this case, I mean: Which number is “Oranges and Lemons” in the series? The official “About the Author” section in the book says, “Christopher Fowler is the acclaimed author of the award-winning Full Dark House  and sixteen other Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries….”  In his “Acknowledgements” for the same book, the author himself says, “Considering this is the nineteenth Bryant & May book ….” And finally, my steadfast compendium of perfectly pertinent bibliographic information, the “Stop, You’re Killing Me!” website: I count “Orange and Lemons” eighteenth on the list of series titles. Peculiar.

I have not read all the “Peculiar Crimes Unit” (“PCU”) stories. As a matter of fact, but not of pride, I have read very few. At the beginning, I read three or four, then a vast, yawning chasm of “other books” interceded. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I craved the strange sauciness of the PCU books. I was finally in what has proved to be the sublime mindset needed to embrace with love and understanding that which is the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth PCU book.

Are you planning on reading this particular PCU book without having read the others? Even I read the first three or four. I will say that after such a long time without the company of Bryant and May, I did not forget what I thought I had not remembered. As much as that sounds like an endorsement as weak as a cuppa from a bag dipped for the third time for reading one of the early set-up novels, I actually don’t think it’s necessary.

Here are the relevant facts. (I am tempted to use the word “factoids” because Fowler loves to add obscure words throughout his book, usually put forth from the mouth of Arthur Bryant, one of the elderly, eccentric detectives in the cast, but I won’t because I abhor the sound of the word said out loud.) Arthur Bryant is one of the elderly, eccentric police detectives in the book. John May is also elderly and a police detective, but not quite as eccentric. Not that eccentricity is a conserved quantity and only a sparing amount needs to be doled out as far as characters go.

Bryant and May are part of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a department formed to deal with odd crimes with a potential woo-woo factor, the acknowledgement of which might deeply embarrass the police department, but if shunted off to the PCU has the potential to be plausibly denied.

Raymond Land is the head of their department, but “head” neither describes his ability nor his capability. Janice Longbright is a long-serving DI who worked her way up and sideways. Dan Banbury, Meera Mangeshkar, and Colin Bimsley have popped up to help along the way. This edition of the PCU adventures introduces the additions of Sidney Hargreaves, a young intern, and Tim Floris, a young overseer from the Home Office.

The beginning of the book introduces the disintegration of the PCU after the blow up of one of the incidents which was shunted off to the PCU and that then needed to be plausibly denied. John May is recuperating from a gunshot wound he received at the end of the last book but, of course, returns to work for the cases that rivet the unit in “Oranges.”

England (Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the British Isles — take your pick) was the mother nest of many gruesome nursery rhymes. Usually we have only learned one or two charming and nonsensical verses, but your childhood caregivers would be appalled to learn the original rhymes had bloody, violent endings. I don’t think we properly ever learned the Bells nursery verses because they speak of the famous church bells of London. As Fowler points out, in the days before competing jackhammers, airplanes, car horns, subways, and general thundering and bellowing, one could hear the bells ringing their individual tunes.

"Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's" is the first verse of the rhyme.

The first case quickly shunted off to the PCU, after it had been regurgitated and reconstituted by the police department in its haste to pass the buck, is the injury of a man hit by cases of fruit in an accident. The man turns out to be important, he has not been injured by falling fruit but by a stabbing, and there was clearly no assailant. Furthermore, the incident happened near the real church of St. Clement Danes and the victim was covered in oranges. Since failure is assured … pass it off to the PCU. 

“You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s” goes the next verse. And so goes the next victim, also stabbed, near St. Martin-in-the-Fields, with five farthings scattered nearby.

Beware the Jabberwock and the last verse, my son: "Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head."

I loved reading every page of this book. Even when the killer became obvious — by the way, Fowler helps by posting a few thoughts directly from the killer — as well as the last target, it was delightful. All the regular characters bloom off the page, especially Arthur Bryant. When “Oranges” turns sad, it is very sad, but when it is happy, it is giddy.

MBTB star for the nostalgia and mise en place of the plot.

Here’s audio of the song if you are interested: https://us.audionetwork.com/browse/m/track/oranges-and-lemons_6947

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