John May and Arthur Bryant are the (aptly designated, since they’re not young men) Senior Detectives for the North London Peculiar Crimes Unit, a unit that “was founded, along with a handful of other specialist departments, soon after the outbreak of World War II, as part of a government initiative to ease the burden on London’s overstretched Metropolitan Police Force, by tackling high-profile cases which had the capacity to compound social problems in urban areas.”

The case confronting them in this particular instance involves a series of murders, all of which are rather bizarre in nature, some of which are seemingly impossible. The victims are people who have achieved various degrees of celebrity in various fields of endeavor. The perpetrator, according to a schoolboy witness, is a man dressed like a highwayman of old, right down to a cape and a tricorn hat. The boy claims he saw the Highwayman ride into a museum room on a black stallion, lift the first victim, a controversial artist, and dump her into the tank that’s part of her own exhibit. The problems? The Highwayman would have to be extraordinarily tall and strong to have done so, given the height of the tank. He’d also have to be capable of invisibility, since nobody else in the museum saw him or his horse enter or leave.

But the Highwayman, Bryant and May discover, is leaving behind clues. To taunt them? Because he wants to be found out?

To compound matters, he begins to make appearances around the city, vanishing before anyone can capture him, and acquires a romantic, rock-star-like aura thanks to the media and the public’s unfavorable perception of his victims. “Highwayman-mania” soon grips London.

During the course of their investigation, Bryant and May notice similarities to an old case they’ve never been able to close: one concerning the so-called Leicester Square Vampire. It has a deeply personal resonance for them because May daughter was one of the Vampire’s victims.

Each sets out to solve the Highwayman case using his own preferred approach. May is the pragmatist and logician, Bryant the radical unhesitant about contacting psychics, self-styled mystics, or anyone else who might be useful. Besides dealing with the case, they have to contend with departmental politics. The Home Office wants to shut down the PCU on the grounds of obsolescence and recent fecklessness.

Bryant and May eventually solve the mystery, of course, but not before May’s granddaughter is imperiled as her mother was years before.

Ten Second Staircase was a disappointment, but I have only myself to blame for it being so because I had wants and expectations going into it that were unmet. When I first heard about the Bryant and May series, I had the impression they all involved impossible crimes of some sort, that they were modern adjuncts to the works of John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson, Hake Talbot, Paul Halter, and other masters of the miraculous, that they‘d be puzzlers oozing atmosphere. (In fact, there’s a reviewer’s blurb on Ten Second Staircase that suggests it’s a locked-room mystery.) What I got was a police procedural about outré crimes complete with social, psychological, and philosophical observations over 464 pages, which is overlong for a mystery.

Apart from its length, the book contains more than a few abstract conversations that are often hard to follow. The characters, despite their quirks, are mostly flat, mere names instead of people who get up off the page and strut their stuff. For all that, Fowler’s style is literate and presumes an intelligent reader. It’s this quality that may eventually prompt me to read another—coupled with the assurance of someone I trust that there’s at least one legitimate locked-room whodunit/howdunit in the series. I can’t resist ’em!

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