Who knew that a pair of octogenarian detectives would become a hit with crime fans? Christopher Fowler’s mystery series about the ancillary London police team aptly called the Peculiar Crimes Unit has become just that, and his ninth book, The Invisible Code, has solidified the series’ reputation as a durable success.

Forget beautiful, young noir heroines and sexy, bad-boy PIs—the unlikely “old guys” duo of John May and Arthur Bryant have stolen the show. They aren’t exactly Abbot and Costello, but the straight arrow / nutty sidekick model describes them well. May’s the impeccably dressed rationalist, a list-maker who follows leads from A to Z, and is (fortunately) not off-putting to higher police authorities. Bryant, with his rumpled, Columbo-style wardrobe and scraggly scarf, uses eccentric methods, capitalizing on the irrational and traveling a winding mental road to detective enlightenment. The two have a longstanding friendship, and their styles complement each other. They’re at their most humorous when the author is not trying to make them funny.

At the beginning of The Invisible Code, two children play a game called “Witch Hunter” while a woman drops dead inside an ancient London church. At the same time, a government official enters fragile negotiations for an international deal that can ensure his promotion and make his career, while his wife goes off her mental rails, claiming she’s pursued by witches. 

In fact, there’s more than a whiff of witchcraft in this tale, as the detectives investigate a bizarre series of murders that seem unconnected. They follow a trail that veers drastically from power games among government officials and their wives to eerie hints of the supernatural. Maybe, the detectives think, it’s all the same thing.

En route to catching the killer, the duo must think beyond the traditional borders of sanity, unravel a puzzling code, de-mystify a grim relic lying in a concealed room and travel from the famed enigma-solving Bletchley Park to the Cedar Tree Clinic for the mentally troubled. Bryant even consults with an eccentric government worker who helps on cases containing “abnormalities” and sifts clues dispensed by a character with satanic aspirations, forebodingly named Mr. Merry.

If anyone can do it, who is better suited than the mischievous, inventive detectives from Peculiar Crimes? Bryant and May are at the top of their game as they cast reason aside and challenge the halls of power and influence.

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