Christopher Fowler has a series of novels featuring the Peculiar Crimes Unit of the police force. This is the second one I've attempted, and the first I've finished. The primary characters are Arthur Bryant and John May, wily and peculiar old detectives with unorthodox methods--particularly Bryant. They also have a staff of officers working for them, and Fowler kindly provided a cast list and description at the beginning, which was very helpful as I otherwise would have had trouble keeping them straight.
We begin the novel at a theatrical party in a penthouse apartment. A new play is about to open, and the owner of the newly-opened theater has invited the cast and crew and the reviewers to his apartment to mingle and get drunk. There are various tensions, both among the theatricals and between the obnoxious millionaire and his insecure, much-younger wife who he feels isn't doing a good enough job of being the graceful hostess. It is a stormy night, and they become aware of a cold, wet draft. They go upstairs to check on their baby and find the bedroom door locked from the inside. When they force it open, they find a window is open and the baby is missing -- having been tossed out the window to its death. An antique Mr. Punch puppet lies near the crib.
This seems to be right up Bryant's alley, as he has a fascination with the theater and with Punch and Judy. While all his colleagues treat it as a perplexing but mortal crime and try to figure out who would have motive and opportunity, Bryant seems to be seriously considering that the baby was murdered by Mr. Punch, and goes off on tangents about the history of Punch and what he represents. I have to say, Punch and Judy is one of those things about British culture that I truly don't understand, probably like most Americans.
There follow more murders, and they slowly hone in on the fact that the obnoxious millionaire is the intended victim, not the killer. Fowler tries to throw in a couple of red herrings, one of which surprised me and the other didn't fool me for a moment. Nevertheless, it was a surprise when the killer is revealed, particularly since we had been told more than once that he was one of the few people they were certain hadn't done it. I thought it a little bit strange that they kept bringing him in and consulting him, though, so there was always something a bit odd about how he was handled.
At any rate, this was a quite entertaining book that nevertheless didn't really hold up, structurally. We are dragged to the seaside, to a wax museum, to an specialist toy shop, and to a fake medieval dungeon, and while it was an interesting diversion most of it had nothing to do with the crime or finding the solution. It's like an entertaining misdirection so that you don't see what a magician is really up to. There is always a hint that maybe there's something unnatural or supernatural about what's going on, but in the end it's just a revenge plot. Oh, well.
So, this book is entertaining but meandering, and a little bit disappointing. That said, I was entertained enough to get another from the library, so clearly I liked it well enough. I just would have liked it better if the solution really were non-mundane in the end.