Ten-Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler

What a wonderful imagination Christopher Fowler has! This fourth novel in the Bryant and May mystery series involves the bizarre deaths of several minor celebrities, a mysterious highwayman complete with horse, cape and tricorn hat, gangs of feuding schoolchildren and a possible link to the Knights Templar. It’s just the sort of case the Peculiar Crimes Unit was created to deal with, and this is one of the most peculiar yet.

Ten Second Staircase As the novel opens, we learn that yet again the PCU is facing the threat of closure, with Bryant and May’s outdated methods of detection coming under attack. Bryant and May – Arthur and John – are the two elderly detectives around whom the rest of the unit revolves. John May is logical, methodical and more open to modern technology, but his partner prefers to rely on his tried-and-tested network of historians, clairvoyants, witches and psychics. Their different personalities and different approaches to crime-solving are the reasons why the two of them have had so much success over the years, right from the very first case they worked on together during the Second World War (described in Full Dark House). Among the successes, however, there has been one failure: the identity of the serial killer known as the Leicester Square Vampire, which has remained unknown since the 1970s.

Bryant and May’s latest mystery begins when a controversial modern artist is drowned in the display case of one of her own art installations. The only witness is Luke Tripp, a twelve-year-boy from nearby St Crispin’s Boys’ School, who claims to have seen a figure resembling Dick Turpin ride into the gallery on horseback and throw the artist into the tank. No sooner have the detectives begun to investigate than the Highwayman strikes again, his second murder as strange and inexplicable as the first. As Bryant and May dig deeper, they uncover some similarities between the Highwayman and the Vampire; if only they can find a way to solve both mysteries at once, the future of the PCU could be secured.

I enjoyed Ten-Second Staircase as I’ve enjoyed all of the previous books in this series, but this is probably my least favourite of the four. The Peculiar Crimes Unit seems to have been facing closure in every book so far and that aspect of the story is starting to feel repetitive, especially as with another nine (at least) books to follow, it was obvious that it would be allowed to stay open. I also couldn’t help feeling that the author was using Bryant and May in this book to voice his own views and opinions on society; this meant that the dialogue sometimes felt more like a lecture rather than a natural conversation between friends.

The things that I did love in this book were the same things I loved in the first three: the unusual and imaginative mystery (which, as usual, I failed to solve), Arthur’s unorthodox detection methods, and the fascinating historical facts and pieces of trivia which are incorporated into the plot. The real attraction of this series, of course, is the partnership of Bryant and May themselves, but we do get to know other members of the PCU as well and some of these characters are developed further in this novel, particularly May’s agoraphobic granddaughter, April, who I’m sure we’ll see more of in future books.

I’ll be continuing soon with book number five, White Corridor!

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11 thoughts on “Ten-Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler

  1. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    I’ve just finished book 2 and am eager to begin book 3. Let’s hope that the things you found disappointing in this book was jut a wobble in the series because I do like the characters and the depth of knowledge, and the plots going forward look wonderful.

    • Helen says:

      I loved the first three books, but just found this one slightly weaker. The next two – White Corridor and The Victoria Vanishes – both sound great, so I’ll definitely be continuing with the series.

  2. Jo says:

    I really enjoy these as well. I have read some of the more recent ones but now going back through them. I quite enjoy the historical elements if the earlier ones.

    There is always some sort of message and comparison about society and in one of the more recent ones, The Burning Man it draws on the riots in London and the Financial crisis you can see it quite clearly. I never thought of it being a lecture, but it us definitely there I think to compare reality with the peculiarity of the events in the book.

    The threat of closure does seem rather boring, but I think it has a place in continuity of the series and there are plenty of them!

    • Helen says:

      I’m trying to read the series in order, though I have been tempted by some of the newer ones. The Burning Man sounds interesting and very relevant. I don’t mind books with messages, but I prefer them to be a more subtle part of the story.

  3. whatmeread says:

    I tried Fowler, but I couldn’t get with the program. It seemed to me more as if he was writing to adolescents than to adults. I do believe it was a Bryant and May book, too. Yes, it was Full Dark House.

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