Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler

Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler front cover

Nursery rhymes, as we all know, often have disturbing and violent messages. The old London rhyme Oranges and Lemons is no exception. When the speaker of the House of Commons Michael Claremont is badly injured under a delivery of citrus fruit near St Clement’s Church, it’s clear (to some) this is no freakish accident. A stave as sharp as a dagger has punctured his stomach. There’s also a strong smell of oranges in the air when a bookshop burns down. The owner later commits suicide.

In this latest Bryant & May novel, the obvious team to tackle the Claremont case is the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU)… but it has been closed down and its two senior detectives are out of action. John May was shot at the cliffhanger end of the last Bryant & May novel, The Lonely Hour, and is facing surgery and criminal charges.

His stubborn partner Arthur Bryant refuses to forgive May and has disappeared. It seems being an elderly man in a woke world has become too much for him. He’s finally taken his colleague Janice Longbright’s advice and sought enlightenment in various temples (all of which chuck him out) in an attempt to discover his spirituality and how empathy works. He’s also adopted textspeak in verbal conversations without having a clue what the acronyms mean – FFS – OBVS – IMHO.

No sooner has the PCU chief Raymond Land grown bored in his retirement, the Home Office reopens the unit for one last investigation – to find out whether Claremont was of sound mind. The Speaker was privy to a huge parliamentary secret and the government needs to know if he has blabbed. The men in the HO’s satanic towers must be desperate as they loathe the PCU.

There are new kids on the block as the team regroups. A Home Office spy, Tim Floris, moves in as an observer – a pipsqueak with threaded eyebrows and manicured nails. And Gen Z intern and waif-child Sidney Hargreaves is sharp as a button. She shares some disturbing eccentric character traits with Bryant. It’s fun seeing them bond, as she teaches him a thing or two.

Soon another death ensues, based on the second verse of the rhyme. A prominent feminist is killed on the steps of St Martin’s amidst scattered five farthings and Bryant fears the remaining verses of the nursery rhyme will be executed, from the Old Bailey to Shoreditch. You’d think forewarned is forearmed but the killer dodges capture at each location, despite forensic investigator Dan Banbury’s ramshackle homemade drone!

As the media catches on and Londoners panic, we read the words of the unknown killer on the page in Making a Murderer chapters. You’ll be hard-pressed to guess who this is. Bryant’s extracts from his Peculiar London walking tour guide at each location are a hilarious mix of gags, London trivia and selective history related to the rhyme. They include tips such as eating a sausage roll lunch on gravestones.

In this 18th Bryant & May novel, Christopher Fowler continues to dish up a delicious serving of dark humour and confusion with verve, as the elderly oddballs and their younger teammates ignore the rules and look for clues in the weirdest of places. As ever, Bryant seeks help where he can and consults a roster of magicians, skateboarders, witches and conspiracy theorists.

Spending time with this fabulous gang is a joyous pastime and I can’t imagine tiring of their company, as they investigate obscure, quirky and complex cases.

To discover more about the workings of the PCU and Christopher Fowler see our guide, and an interview with the author. There’s a review of Bryant and May shorts stories England’s Finest too.