This post, I’m looking at Wild Chamber, the most recent and 14th in Christopher Fowler’s popular Bryant and May series. If you’re not familiar with the books, here are a few places to look:
OverDrive (your local library’s ebook app): here is what they have available for loan
If you want to read a sample at Amazon, see below the cover image here.
What have I learned as a writer from Fowler’s work in general and from this latest entry in his series? I want to focus on four elements: character, plot, setting and emotional center.
Character: All the stories revolve around the two senior detectives for whom the series is named: Arthur Bryant and John May. They lead investigations from inside the Peculiar Crimes Unit in London. Their decades-spanning partnership is mainly successful because Bryant’s quirky brilliance is balanced and shaped by May’s stability and common sense.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I’ve come to believe that Bryant is the primary protagonist, with everyone else in the PCU, including May, providing support. This is subtle, but looked at in this way, the series is an extended story about Bryant’s personality and the changes he goes through. It’s making me want to focus more intensively on Father Ambrose in the second book in my series. I think it can make the stories richer and more complex.
The risk I run (and that Fowler runs) is that readers might not like it, wanting greater engagement with different characters. In Wild Chamber, we see glimpses of the struggles Bryant is having with hallucinations, but I would have preferred more of a thread of this theme throughout the plot rather than the time spent on details about London’s parks. I’d like to have had even greater opportunity to understand and empathize with him.
Plot: The story is about the murder of a businesswoman inside the locked gates of the park outside her home. Her murder is followed by others, and Bryant seems to know clearly who the murderer is very early on. I’d have liked to have followed his logic better, since how he knew all this wasn’t very clear.
In all, I found the plot convoluted and so long in coming to the point that I really didn’t care very much about the outcome. The murders were of people I never developed any sympathy for. The ultimate villain isn’t visible until late in the book, and his reasons for committing the crimes didn’t seem very compelling to me. Tying back to my comments on character, I see how important it is for readers to have someone to care about in the story. If it’s going to be Bryant, in this case, then let me really see through his eyes and feel into his feelings. In the case of my stories, my mentor has asked for what he calls the “emotional reveal,” the telling of the story through the inner states of the key characters.
Setting: For the most part, we’re in London parks, the larger city of London, and the offices of the PCU. Each of these locales is very well-developed, and the visuals are good. Fowler’s in-depth knowledge of his city is apparent, and I can tell what a massive amount of research he has done. It’s impressive. While he probably needed to do it, perhaps he could not have used so much as book content. I prefer to have enough info so I can do my own further research, but not so much that the story gets waylaid by it. Fowler also delivers all this background primarily via dialogue with Arthur.
It’s instructive for me in working on my second book. The central event is a fire, and I’ve had to do a fair amount of research on fire investigations. My first draft was way too detailed, with a lot of technical info provided through the voice of the fire scene investigator. My mentor has encouraged me to use less technical talk and, instead, use vivid descriptions of the scene itself.
Emotional Center: I’m defining this as meaning “who do we care about the most and why?” The Emotional Center in Wild Chamber is definitely Arthur Bryant. His age, his illness, and his self-doubt bring us into his humanity, and we feel for him, want to protect him. I would have liked more of him and less of London if there had to be a tradeoff.
I’ve become convinced, in my own writing and in what I’ve read, that this emotional arc is the most important and engaging aspect of great fiction. For myself, it means examining my characters and plot from this perspective and making sure I know upfront how that emotional arc will unfold over the course of the book.
Fowler doesn’t give us as much flesh here as I’d like, but Arthur Bryant has all the features of a character who could carry this requirement.