It's a case tailor-made for the Peculiar Crimes Unit. A lonely hearts killer is targeting middle-aged women at some of England's most well-known pubs--including one torn down eighty years ago. What's more, Arthur Bryant happened to see one of the victims only moments before her death at the pub that doesn't exist. Indeed, this case is littered with clues that defy everything the veteran detectives know about the habits of serial killers, the methodology of crime, and the odds of making an arrest. Now, with the public on the verge of panic and their superiors determined to shut the PCU down for good, Detectives Bryant and May must rise to the occasion in defense of two great English traditions--the pub and the Peculiar Crimes Unit.
That's easier said than done. A lost funeral urn, the eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, the Knights Templars, the secret history of pubs, and the discovery of an astounding religious relic may be enough to convince one of the pair to take back his resignation letter. But with Bryant consulting a memory specialist and May encountering a brush with mortality, do the Peculiar Crimes Unit's two living legends have enough life left to stop a murderous conspiracy...and a deadly cupid targeting one of their own.
Officialdom casts a skeptical eye on the unorthodox crime solving of London's Peculiar Crimes Unit in Fowler's excellent sixth novel to feature senior detectives Arthur Bryant and John May (after 2007's White Corridor). While the unit's members scheme to insure their professional survival, a serial killer is targeting middle-aged women who drop dead in pubs, apparently of natural causes. Bryant puts the investigation on his team's docket after realizing that he observed one of the victims, shortly before her demise, enter the Victoria Cross, a pub that hasn't existed for almost a century. Characters who could easily have been caricatures in lesser hands assume enough depth to make them both plausible and engaging. If this is indeed the last in the series as the conclusion suggests, then the versatile author has ended on a high note. Those who appreciate Fowler's special blend of the macabre, dark humor and impossible crime puzzles will wish they haven't seen the last of Bryant and May. (Oct.)
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October 27, 2008
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Excerpt from The Victoria Vanishes by Christopher Fowler
Chapter One Asleep in the Stars She had four and a half minutes left to live. She sat alone at the cramped bar of the Seven Stars and stared forlornly into her third empty glass of the evening, feeling invisible. The four-hundred-year-old public house was tucked behind the Royal Courts of Justice. It had been simply furnished with a few small tables, wooden booths and framed posters of old British courtroom movies. Mrs Curtis had been coming here for years, ever since she had first become a legal secretary, but every time she came through the door, she imagined her father's disapproval of her drinking alone in a London pub. It wasn't something a vicar's daughter should do. Hemmed in by barristers and clerks, she could not help wondering if this was all that would be left for her now. She wanted to remain in employment, but companies had grown clever about making women of a certain age redundant. After her last pay-off, she had spent time working for a philosophical society instead of heading back into another large firm. Now she was waiting for—what exactly? Someone to surprise her, someone to appreciate her, someone— She stared back into the melting ice cubes. Her name was Naomi, but her colleagues called her Mrs Curtis. What was the point of having an exotic name if nobody used it? She was sturdy-beamed and rather plain, with thick arms and straight bangs of greying hair, so perhaps she looked more like a Curtis to others. If she had married, perhaps she would have gained a more appealing surname. She regretted having nothing to show for the past except the passing marks of time. She checked the message on her cell phone again. It was brief and unsigned, but casual acquaintances sometimes called and suggested a drink, then failed to turn up; the legal profession was like that. Looking around the bar, she saw no-one she recognised. Friends usually knew where to find her. 'Give me another Gordon's, darling. Better make it a double.' Adorable boy, she thought. The barman was impossibly slim, probably not much older than twenty-one, and didn't regard her with pity, just gave her the same friendly smile he bestowed on everyone else. Probably Polish; the ones who worked in bars now were quick to show pleasure, and had a rather old-fashioned politeness about them that she admired. She touched her hair and watched him at work. She would never eat alone in a restaurant, but taking a drink by herself in a pub was different. Nobody knew her past here, or cared. For once, there were no tourists in, just the Friday night after-office crowd jammed into the tiny narrow rooms and spread out across the pavement on an unnaturally warm winter night. It had to be a lot colder than this to stop the city boys from drinking outside. When she noticed him, it seemed he had been standing at her side for a while, trying to get served. 'Here,' she said, pushing back her stool, 'get in while you can.' 'Thanks.' He had a nice profile, but quickly turned his head from her, probably because of shyness. He was a lot younger than she, slightly built, with long brown hair that fell across his face. There was something distantly recognisable about him. 'Can I get you one while I'm here?' he asked. Rather a common voice, she thought. South London. But definitely familiar. Someone I've talked to after a few gins? 'Go on, then, I'll have another Gordon's, plenty of ice.' He slid the drink over to her, looking around. 'I wonder if it's always this crowded.' 'Pretty much. Don't even think about finding your way to the toilets, they're up those stairs.' She pointed to the steep wooden passageway where a pair of tall prosecutors were making a meal out of having to squeeze past each other. He muttered something, but it was lost in a burst of raucous laughter behind them. 'I'm sorry, what did you say?' she asked. '