Recently The Man of the House and I treated ourselves to a last-minute break in Great Yarmouth, to celebrate our birthdays (just three days apart!). We had a lovely, relaxing time, and I had planned to re-read David Copperfield, because of Mr Peggotty’s home on the beach, or Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, since it’s set in The Fens which is, roughly speaking, the same part of the country, and I like to find books with links to places I visit. However, what I ended up reading was The Water Room, by Christopher Fowler, which has no connection whatsoever with Norfolk, or anywhere else in that area, but was absolutely brilliant.
As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of crime fiction – I don’t like graphic descriptions of dead bodies or deep psychological insights into the minds of criminals. But this isn’t like that at all (although I’m not sure I would describe it as ‘cosy’ either), but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Water Room is the second in Fowler’s series about aging detectives Bryant and May (and yes, if you look at his website the names were taken from the matches). The duo, long past retirement age, are the mainstay of London’s Peculiar Crime Unit – and if there isn’t a real police department of that name there jolly well should be! The basic premise seems to be that Bryant and May are Golden Age detectives working in the modern world, but I suspect the pair of them would always have been considered unconventional, even during their early days with the Met in WW2. Actually, I have to admit I’ve never been quite sure what constitutes a Golden Age crime novel, but my TBR pile includes Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, and I’m hoping that will enlighten me (when I eventually get round to reading it).
Anyway, in The Water Room Arthur Bryant and John May get involved when an old friend finds his elderly, reclusive sister dead on a chair in her basement bathroom. Initially all appears normal, but her throat is full of river water. Then Kallie, the new owner of the house, is disturbed by plagues of tiny spiders; she hears the sound of rushing water in the basement, and mysterious damp patches keep appearing and disappearing. There are two more deaths as the long, hot summer is succeeded by the wettest autumn on record. The menacing sense of unease grows as the rain keeps falling, and below ground hidden waters are rising where Balaclava Street crosses the old Fleet River…
As Bryant and May struggle to find the triple killer and prevent another death, they have
another mystery to solve. Why is an old acquaintance
helping a shady Egyptian ‘businessman’ gain access to underground tunnels and waterways which are closed to the general public? Is it possible the cases could be linked? And will the detective duo find the answers before they run out of time, for they have been ordered to drop these unauthorised investigations and concentrate on more important official cases.
The plot was nicely paced and dramatic tension was well maintained throughout – it had me gripped from the outset, so much so that I didn’t want to put the book down. And I didn’t spot the killer until the ‘reveal’, although there are clues along the way, if you know where to look. I liked the way the viewpoint changes, from Bryant, to May, to their individual colleagues in the PCU, to Kallie, to other Balaklava Street residents. And the characters are positively Dickensian (actually, I thought the scope of the whole novel, and the descriptions, was very Dickensian). The cast includes artists, academics with dubious pasts, a white witch, a grasping estate agent, a builder who likes his drink, a strange tramp, and a motherly policewoman who looks like a movie sex goddess. Fowler achieves the difficult task of making them larger than life, while keeping them credible. And his London is an entity as alive and vibrant as his people (another parallel with Dickens I think.It’s meant as a compliment. I like Dickens).
However, as you might expect, it’s Bryant and May themselves who take centre stage. They remind me of the old married couples I used to interview for their golden wedding anniversaries, who would tell me they had their ups and downs, but the secret of a happy marriage lay in pulling together. Bryant and May are like that. They don’t always work in harmony, and they’re complete opposites, but their natures and interests complement each other, with each providing something the other lacks Individually neither would be the greatest detective in the world, but together they are a formidable team with an incredibly strong working relationship.
Arthur Bryant is the maverick, the one who flouts rules to get results. He’s a bit of a loner, very curmudgeonly, and manages to upset everyone without really knowing why, so he’s definitely not what you’d call a ‘people person’. But he cares much more about people, and is more understanding about them than you think than you think. And he has a wide circle of acquaintances, all equally odd, who help when needed. He’s no good with modern technology – mobile phones, computers, cars and goodness knows what else go wrong when he uses them. His clothes are old and and shabby, and he wears a trilby hat and smokes a pipe (Fowler’s tribute to Sherlock Holmes perhaps?) And he’s interested in all sorts of arcane and occult information that could throw light on a case.
John May is neater, tidier, much more organised, and more inclined to follow procedures and keep on top of paperwork. He seems to have embraced modern technology – he’s certainly very good with things like computers and mobile phones. On the face of it he’s more likable than Bryant, better able to communicate with people and empathise with them, so they trust him when he’s interviewing them. He’s a dapper dresser (especially for his age), and a bit of a ladies’ man – an ex-lover features in the story. I think he could be quite a charmer if you met him! But I do wonder how much of himself he reveals.
I think Bryant and May are meant to be in their 80s. But whatever their exact age, Fowler never makes them do anything pensioners wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do, and they are convincing oldies. Bryant is hard of hearing and walks with a stick; neither he nor his partner chase criminals through the streets or wrestle villains to the ground. They don’t sound like a dream team of crime fighters. But they are very tenacious, and their mental faculties are unaffected. They make a connection here and cut a link there as they pick their way through through a tangled web of clues, known facts and information that may have a bearing on their investigations – or may turn out to be completely unrelated.
I loved the wealth of detail, about London, its history, its hidden waterways, Greek and Roman myths and ancient Egyptian beliefs. And if you wonder how much of this stuff is true, the author claims that the most bizarre facts are the truest.
Running through everything are themes of water and home, the lost and the found, death and renewal.. There are hidden waters, hidden lives, hidden objects and hidden people. The question of home, and what makes a home, looms large. Bryant and May are moving back into their old offices (a kind of home, now repaired after an explosion); Bryant has left his landlady and moved to a flat; Kallie has bought her first house, and hopes to make it a real home – but her boyfriend dreams of finding himself through travel and runs away from their home. Heather, her brittle friend and neighbour is more concerned about money and appearances, and there are other residents who are equally unable to make the leap from property owner to home owner. Set against them are the homeless: Tate, the mysterious tramp who haunts the gardens of Balaklava Street; the men in the hostel, and the refugees.
The Water Room is a difficult book to review without giving spoilers. In many ways it’s a difficult book to review at all, which is an odd comment to make considering how long this post is. But it’s tricky knowing where to start, or what to say, because it is so well written, and there are so many different layers and threads you could look at, and so many different aspects to be considered. So I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning: it’s not my usual sort of reading, but it’s unexpectedly brilliant , and I loved everything about it – the way it was written, the characters, and the story.