RogerBW's Blog

The Water Room, Christopher Fowler 10 March 2019

2006 police procedural mystery/horror, second in the Bryant and May series. An elderly woman is found dead in the basement of her house… dressed for a trip outside, even though she hardly ever went outside, and with river water in her throat. It's not even clear that it's a crime, never mind any questions of motivation; but with the Peculiar Crimes Unit under threat of closure, Bryant and May do their best to investigate and justify their existence.

This second book of the series happens in the present day, but there's still a split narrative: on the other side of the investigation is Kallie Owen, a young woman trying to sort out life with her boyfriend, who ends up moving into the dead woman's house. This is where most of the conventional horror happens (starting with unexplained sounds, mysterious damp patches, and an infestation of spiders, and tapping into the same sort of feeling of having overstretched oneself in order to buy, do up and sell a house that drove The Amityville Horror), but as usual with Fowler there's nothing explicitly supernatural here.

Considered as a mystery, it's rather full of red herrings, with Bryant in particular putting fanciful interpretations on ambiguous findings. There's also a fair amount of recounting of ongoing life with no particular relevance to the case, put in largely as distraction; it's fine if you're already interested in these people, but it could easily make the book drag if you're not. There are also long lectures about the underground rivers of London (this book is much more about them than Rivers of London itself would be five years later), which are clearly meant to introduce them to the novice, but there's plenty here for the expert to enjoy too (and to find the seams where this river and sewer network departs from reality).

Characterisation is often superficial but nonetheless convinces; Fowler sketches someone in a few sentences, and one feels they're drawn from the life rather than made up to hand out whatever bit of obscure knowledge is now needed. The explanation of what's been going on is somewhat unsatisfying, perhaps inevitably given what a splendid build-up it's been given in the rest of the book, and there are a few inconsistencies, but this helps it feel more real than the standard police procedural with obvious findings and easy answers.

In essence, mundane failures of procedure are countered by the quality of the writing. Followed by Seventy-Seven Clocks.

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See also:
Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis

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