The Water Room by Christopher Fowler
Book Two of the Bryant and May series
Published by Bantam Books/Transworld Books. Originally published 2004.
ISBN: 978 0 553 82468 1
Review by Mark Yon.
And so, with great expectations, I return to the world of Arthur Bryant and John May, the aging detectives from London Metropolitan Police’s Peculiar Crimes Unit.
With the events of Full Dark House (reviewed here) I found the series a very pleasant surprise. The Water Room develops them further. Whereas the first book introduced them in their most recent reincarnation (they did appear in some of Christopher’s other writing previously) and Full Dark House was mainly about their first case back in 1940’s London, this one is resolutely ‘now’, with the book’s beginning at the time of the reopening of the redecorated Peculiar Crimes Unit’s base after the explosion in Full Dark House.
It’s not long before we’re into ‘the weird stuff’. Bryant is contacted by an old colleague whose elderly sister has been found dead in her house and in possibly mysterious circumstances. The body was in the cellar, sitting, as if at rest, but with water around her feet and Thames river water in her mouth. The house is nowhere near the river. Bryant is intrigued and involves the PCU. However, when her various and varied neighbours are interviewed, it seems initially innocuous, a case of relatively simple sudden-death.
The decrepit old house on Balaklava Street is quickly sold, and bought by pretty young model Kallie Owen as ‘a doer-upper’, but it’s not long before there becomes palpable a definite sense of unease. Strange events and further deaths suggest that there is something else happening beyond the initial death: in fact, there is the possibility of murder…..
The plot itself is intriguingly bizarre, yet Christopher points out in his Acknowledgements that the ‘most bizarre facts are in this book are the truest’, which, considering what happens, is quite mind-blowing.
There are some dazzlingly literate moments here. Bryant’s monologue describing London in the first chapter (and throughout) reflects both Bryant’s and Christopher’s obvious love of London – for all its history, its character, its highs and its lows, it is clear that both would rather be nowhere else. The methodical and rather aloof Bryant is determined to work until ‘he drops’ (an event which, as he enters his eighth decade, can’t be that far away) which seems to mirror both his love with London and his obsession with solving puzzles.
That’s not to say that this view of London is romanticised – there are some dark and creepy places that even the worldly wise would feel intimidated by – but the feeling of London as a living, changing, evolving place with a rich and bizarre history makes London a third major character. Christopher uses London’s rich and peculiar past, its historical heritage and its characters to provide a background to the crimes herein that makes the reader feel present, part of this amazing pageantry of things past and present.
The characterisation covers the range of social class and ethnicity that would be expected in a British inner city street, and Christopher uses each of them with the skill of a master, never saying more than necessary, yet intermingling commentary on society and culture with sly perceptive analysis. In particular, the reader finds out more about Arthur Bryant and John May. Bryant is the bad-tempered, socially-incompetent workaholic who buries himself in his work, whilst we also find more about the difficult past relationship of May with his family and colleagues. This is Bryant’s tale on the whole, though the supporting characters do fill out the repertoire nicely.
Like Full Dark House, though there are no blatantly obvious supernatural elements to the plot, it is still an engagingly creepy tale. The mood throughout is such that there could be an unusual cause, that the murders herein are just too odd to be natural. The ending is, after such a great set-up, brings together what seem initially to be disparate events. Great plotting.
I enjoyed this one as much, if not more than, the first. Here I started to get a real grasp of our two unlikely heroes, and want to know more. A great read.
Mark Yon, September 2012.