The Water Room by Christopher Fowler (2004)

Arthur Bryant and John May met in London in November 1940. Both young men were assigned to the PCU – the Peculiar Crimes Unit – to deal with the strangest of crimes and, though they were young and had little experience, they found themselves pretty much running the place while so many resources and so many men were caught up in the war.

Years later, when they were both quite elderly and much had changed they were still working together at the PCU. They were very different men but they worked together well, with Bryant’s blatant eccentricities and lateral thinking balanced by May’s people skills, common sense and logical thought processes.

I loved ‘Full Dark House’, the book where they made their first appearance, I have no idea why it has taken me so long to pick up this second book, but I loved this book even more and I am eager to pick up the next book.

But I told myself that I had to write about this book first.

In that first book  the PCU’s offices destroyed by an explosion and this story begins not long after that, with the unit re-staffed, under new management and settling into new premises. Bryant and May have no officially designated cases, but they are quickly drawn into unofficial investigations.

Water-Room-pbBenjamin Singh, an old friend of Bryant’s, persuades him to come to the home of his sister, Ruth Singh. He had found her dead in the basement of her Victorian home on Balaklava Street, dressed to go out, and sitting on a chair with her hands calmly folded . He knew that something was wrong, and he was right, At first Bryant thought that the scene was simply odd, but it quickly became clear that natural causes could be ruled out. Her mouth and throat were full of river water, even though the room, and her clothes and hair, were dry and showed show no signs of having been wet.

Ruth rarely left her home and there were suggestions that she had suffered racist abuse, and so the investigation was focused on her neighbours. Balaclava Street was a Victorian terrace set on top of one of the seven forgotten rivers that flow beneath London.

Meanwhile, at the request of an old flame, May is looking into the activities of her husband, Gareth Greenwood, an academic whose special interest those forgotten rivers. He finds that a  particularly dangerous villain, Jackson Ubeda, appears to have hired Greenwood to exploit his expertise, for purposes as yet unknown.

Model Kallie Owen and her boyfriend, Paul Garrow, had been evicted – not entirely legally – from their rented flat and they were looking for a new home. When she went to see her old school friend, Heather Allen of Balaclava Street, she learned that Benjamin Singh hoped to sell his sister’s house quickly, and she put in an offer. It seemed like a stroke of luck, but as Kallie set about creating her dream home she was troubled by the constant sound of rushing water, swollen doors and windows, and damp patches that appear and disappear on the walls. And then Paul left her – to find himself he said – and she had to deal with everything alone.

There would be more strange deaths on Balaklava Street, and all of the residents of that street would be pulled into the storm as the rain fell on and on and water levels grew higher and higher.

‘The Water Room’ works brilliantly as a crime story, with those different storylines coming together beautifully. The plotting is very clever, I suspected a great many characters at different points in the story, but the ending came as  and it works at so many levels.

The story considers the eternal and inevitably struggle between the four ancient elements, fire, air, earth, and water. Water brings the first death but other elements will bring the deaths that follow. Maybe Shakespeare’s story of ‘The Tempest’ played out on Balaclava Street ….

It considers the significance of home, through the diverse community in Baklava Street, and as Arthur Bryant leaves his long-suffering landlady behind and moves to a new flat.

You could think about those things as you read, but there is such a lovely wealth of detail in the story and there is such richness in the characters and their relationships that you could easily let those things sail by as you simply enjoy the story.

There were so many different aspects, the story could have flown off in so many different directions. They might have been interesting, but I was glad that it stayed on track.

Arthur Bryant, his long term partnership with May and their long association with DS Janice Longbright, bring such humanity to the story. Their interactions, rooted in a back story about which a little is known but much has to be revealed, are wonderful and make it clear that though they often aggravate each other they will always be comrades and they will always be professional

You could also think about London. There is a wealth of knowledge about London and its rivers underpinning this story; in some hands I would find that dry but here I was fascinated, because Christopher Fowler’s love of everything he was writing about was clear on every page.

He made an extraordinary story believable and so very engaging.

I was sorry to come to the end, but I am looking forward to the next book and to the books that come after that ….