Mr. Fowler’s small but ardent American following deserves to get much larger. And “The Invisible Code” is a delightful introduction to his work. It presents two senior detectives with the Peculiar Crimes Unit: the codgerly Arthur Bryant, who does the deducing and has the most priceless dialogue, and his devoted partner, John May, who does what he can to keep Bryant breathing. They also have a staff cat, Crippen, and a pedantic boss, Raymond Land, one of whose memos is printed at the start of the book: “May I remind you that you are British officers of the law, and are not required to have any imagination.”
The crime plot kicks off with the mysterious death of a young woman, Amy O’Connor, who was innocently sitting in a London church reading “Rosemary’s Baby.” By coincidence or not, some children were nearby, playing a witchcraft game in which they cast murderous spells. As Bryant collects details about this occurrence, a colleague tells him: “My mind doesn’t store things up for later use like yours does. I prefer to have a brain, not a shed.”
Land sees no reason the Peculiar Crimes Unit should get involved with London authorities in this investigation. “As a student of human nature,” Mr. Fowler writes, “he would have made a fine pastry chef.”
But then Bryant’s cellphone makes its theremin sound (the perfect ringtone for him). And he and May are summoned by Oskar Kasavian, an important Home Office politician with two salient attributes: a promotion in the offing and a glamorous Albanian-born wife. “If Kasavian had to be married at all, surely his wife should have had a face that could send a dog under a table?” Bryant reasons. But no: Sabira Kasavian is young and beautiful. She’s also unstable, a menace to her husband’s career and an apparent believer in witchcraft. When Oskar, who Bryant had thought was a suspect in Amy O’Connor’s murder, hires the officers to keep an eye on Sabira, Bryant is miserable. “Not only do I lose my only suspect,” he says, “but I gain Dracula as a client.”
“The Invisible Code” has immense charm, but its plotting will satisfy serious mystery fans, too. After Sabira’s character is delectably established, through a series of defiant encounters with the snobbish wives of other Home Office bigwigs, she begins to come unstrung. And her close relationship with a particular newspaper photographer comes under suspicion — all the more so when somebody wants the photographer dead.
No more spoilers here, except that Mr. Fowler verges on using the “Da Vinci Code” playbook when he leaves a corpse in a museum, pointing to an artwork that may identify the killer. Then there’s the code of the title, which leads the detectives to Bletchley Park, site of the World War II Enigma code breakers. One admirable feature of these books is their incorporation of London landmarks and architecture, not to mention English history, into present-day tales of detection.
Mr. Fowler creates a fine blend of vivid descriptions (one eccentric spiritualist dressed in purple, green, orange and yellow looks like “a small seaside town celebrating a centenary”), quick thinking and artful understatement. When the investigation threatens to reach into high levels of government, one police sergeant, evidently expert in the art of cop humor, says: “I knew it. Bang goes the knighthood.” But best of all are the two main characters, particularly Bryant, whose fine British stodginess is matched perfectly by the agility of his crime-solving mind.
Bryant shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, he is especially indignant in this book, having been forced from his home into new digs that he intensely dislikes and fed such British delicacies as cabinet pudding. (If it is not well known, there’s a good reason.) He especially relishes showing up at Claridge’s, not to eat, he could never afford that, but to make the arrest that is the payoff for this book’s long, serpentine investigation.
When Mr. Fowler began writing this series, he expressed glee at the idea of having Bryant try to use a cellphone. Now he has an even more wicked idea: sending Bryant and May across the Atlantic, where their aghast reactions to American life should prove an endless source of amusement. Mr. Fowler’s many other books would also be welcome here, since he has written much more than this detective series. There is also “Film Freak,” his memoir of working in the lower echelons of the British film business in the 1970s, just as it hit rock bottom. It would be nice to have an American edition.