Bryant & May Mysteries – ‘The Water Room’ by Christopher Fowler

29 09 2010

'The Water Room' by Christopher Fowler, 432pp, Bantam, ISBN: 0553815539

Reviewed by Sharon Ring.

Onwards with book two in the Bryant & May Mysteries, The Water Room. When last we met the detecting duo we had a glimpse into the modern day Peculiar Crimes Unit and also learned of how the Unit was formed. In the second novel, we’re back to the present day with the octogenarian detectives both unofficially taking on cases as favours for old friends. Bryant begins looking into the seemingly innocent death of an old lady, the sister of Bryant’s friend Benjamin Singh. Discovered in the basement bathroom of her Kentish Town home it looks, at first glance, as though Ruth may have died a peaceful death. Nothing is that simple though, especially not in the crazy world of Arthur Bryant. Ruth’s body is fully dressed as if to go out and a post-mortem examination of Ruth’s body uncovers traces of stagnant Thames water in her mouth. An open verdict is placed on Ruth’s death but Bryant is far from satisfied and it’s only a matter of time before he’s allowed to plunge back into the investigation.

May’s favour for a friend comes in the form of a plea for help from an old flame, Monica Greenwood. Monica is convinced her academic husband, Gareth, is involved in something shady: it’s happened before, a taint on Gareth’s employment record and a second mistake could be the end of his career, so Monica turns to May for assistance in discovering just what her husband is getting up to. Early investigations point towards Greenwood’s involvement in a search for some forgotten piece of Egyptian treasure, a search which takes him, and the detectives, deep underground through London’s lost rivers.

Meanwhile, back in Balaklava Street, Kentish Town Benjamin Singh has fought off the bullying tactics of property developers Garrett and Moss to sell his sister’s house to a young woman called Kallie Owen. Kallie moves in with her boyfriend Paul and is immediately beset with the kind of problems faced by any first-time owner of a fixer-upper – electrics, plumbing – everything needs Kallie’s attention. The most troubling part of the house is the basement bathroom where Ruth’s body was discovered by Benjamin. Plagued by spiders and an increasingly present sound of rushing water, Kallie is wary of spending any more time in there than is absolutely necessary.

Inevitably, Bryant and May’s separate investigations converge and move back in on Balaklava Street. The detectives are faced with more deaths; more inexplicable connections and a street full of uncooperative suburbanites. The residents of Balaklava Street are about as suburban as you can get. Crumbling marriages hidden behind twitching nets, unhappy kids with pushy parents, elderly neighbours left uncared for and a little too much social climbing for life to ever be just right for more than one of the street’s residents.

With the heavens opening and London’s rivers rising, much of the Unit’s time is spent getting drenched. Fowler captures a damp and dark London as the city scurries out of a late September heatwave and into a rain-soaked October. The monsoon-like weather is put to excellent use, both helping and hindering the detectives in their quest to unravel the twin mysteries.

The Water Room is as well-plotted and delivered a novel as the first book in the series, Full Dark House. Having given us a thorough grounding in the creation of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, introducing us to the eccentricities of how the team works and the tangents at which an investigation more often than not takes, Fowler launches the reader into the fascinating world of London’s almost forgotten underground river system. And this, as with Full Dark House, is the crux on which much of the excellence of these books rests, London.

London is one those cities which people tend to love or hate. There’s rarely a middle ground and it’s unlikely you’ll find someone who’s just indifferent about the place. For me, London has always been synonymous with grime, oppression, hostility and arrogance. I pass through on my way to somewhere more inviting; I nip in for an occasional book signing and museum visit. It’s all very quick and mostly seen through the windows of coaches, trains and buses, and the endless corridors of tube stations. Seeing the city through Fowler’s born and bred Londoner’s eye, I’m beginning to see a different city: the city lived in and loved by all those people who rush through its streets at all hours, the pubs I’ll probably never visit, the foibles and quirks of a place I will never quite understand.

London becomes, within the pages of the Bryant and May Mysteries, a place of wonder; a place quite removed from my own long-held prejudices. If you take a look around Christopher Fowler’s website, it’s possible to check out some of the locations from each of the stories, a particularly nice touch and one which brings out my inner geek, tempting me to spend a weekend in London walking the Bryant & May trail. I may yet do it!

The next book in the series is Seventy-Seven Clocks which I’ll be reviewing in due course, along with a few thoughts on Christopher Fowler and why reading these books is akin to the putting on of the most comfortable shoes you’ll ever wear.

So, until next time, farewell!

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3 responses

30 09 2010
Christopher Fowler

Hi Sharon – thanks for the thumbs-up – yes, that’s me, the comfortable old slippers of crime fiction, Mr Dressing Gown & Baked Beans In Front Of A Horror Film.
Be warned though…’Seventy Seven Clocks’ is the odd one out. I aimed at doing mysteries in lots of different styles, and that’s my whacky one. My personal faves? ‘White Corridor’ and the newest own, ‘Bryant & May Off The Rails’.

30 09 2010
Mark Deniz

Love the title ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’ to be honest – that alone makes me want to read that one!

30 09 2010
Sharon Ring

No worries, Christopher. They really are spectacular stories. Almost finished reading Seventy-Seven Clocks now. Just waiting for the rug to be pulled from under my feet on my current theory. I honestly thought I had it sussed with The Water Room but you threw me right off the scent. If I’m wrong on Seventy-Seven Clocks there will be major sulking.

Mark – I’d lend you my copies but 1) you’re too far away, and 2) I don’t think I could part with them anyway. I’m buying my mum the first three books for Christmas – I explained the idea of the series and she’s hooked already.

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