Well I didn’t see that coming! I’d seen others in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series in bookshops and on Amazon and had filed it away at the back of my mind for future investigation. So, when I saw The Water Room, the second in the series in the Transworld Book Challenge selection, I knew I had to pick it.And, it turns out I’ve been labouring under a complete misapprehension about it. You’ve probably not heard of Charters and Caldicott. They were jolly old buffers, obsessed with cricket, who appeared as minor characters in the film, The Lady Vanishes, proved surprisingly popular with audiences and made recurring cameo appearances in a number of films, the most notable of which is Night Train to Munich. They were resurrected as bumbling amateur detectives in the 1980s by the BBC in a series and a couple of spin off novelisations.
I’ve always had something of a soft spot for them and so, seeing that Fowler’s detectives were named after an iconic brand of matches and that the cover art images of them are of old men of a certain era, I jumped to the conclusion that Bryant and May would be similar to Charters and Caldicott and that I was in for an amiable detective diversion with maybe some cricketing trivia thrown in. Oh, how wrong I was and how glad I was to be wrong as, for all their period charm, Charters and Caldicott were pretty flimsy and lightweight whereas The Water Room has a satisfying depth to it.
Bryant and May are the senior members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a specialist police unit set up to handle those crimes that are too odd, too difficult or too, well, peculiar for the mainstream Met to bother with. Our two heroes are both senior citizens who have somehow avoided being pensioned off. Bryant is curmudgeonly, expert in the arcane and prone to destroying technology through some in-built talent. May, on the other hand, is fascinated by gadgetry, a bit of a ladies’ man and far more personable. Despite being polar opposites, they have managed to maintain a partnership for over forty years and run a team of junior detectives and forensic experts including their key assistant, Janice Longstreet, a retired sergeant with a penchant for dressing as a ‘50s Hollywood screen goddess.
In The Water Room, Bryant gets interested in the mysterious death of an old Indian lady at number 5 Balaklava Street, the sister of one of his contacts. The lady in question is found seated in her basement bathroom with a mouth full of river water, apparently drowned yet completely dry. At the same time, an old girlfriend of May has roped him in to investigating the strange activities of her academic husband, who has been furtively exploring the hidden rivers of London in cahoots with a dubious collector of Ancient Egyptian artefacts. There follows a complex storyline interweaving the two mysteries in which it becomes apparent that the hidden rivers are the linking factor until our detectives solve the cases with a classic last chapter explanation.
Although the relationship between Bryant and May and them and their subordinates is at the heart of The Water Room and, I suspect, the other books in the series, I can’t help but feel that the real star of the book is London itself. Like some authors, notably China Miéville, Christopher Fowler has captured something of the soul of the city. The book almost reeks of it. The London of The Water Room is a damp, grey city, dark and oppressive, drawing out the petty crimes and misdemeanours that lie behind the net curtains of its residential streets. This level of atmosphere gives rise to an almost melancholic feel in much of the book and Fowler’s insights into human nature lift The Water Room above the usual run of the mill detective novel. I’m glad I finished it before I went on holiday as I’m not sure it would have worked as well on the beach.
Although a detective story, this is not the kind of book where the reader can follow a set of carefully planted clues, avoiding authorial sleight of hand, in order to unmask the murderer. Instead, it is very much the kind of detective story where one simply has to relax into the plot and enjoy the journey of Bryant and May. It is a novel and not a puzzle. Part of this, of course, is down to Fowler’s writing style but much of it is a reflection of the way Bryant’s mind works. In the same way that their personalities differ, so too do the thought processes of Bryant and May. May is the classical detective, relying on logic and deduction to make progress. Bryant is a more intuitive thinker, making leaps of thought and being open to all kinds of esoterica in his investigations. Although The Water Room is emphatically not a novel of the supernatural or paranormal, there is a whiff of the arcane about Bryant’s methods and sources.
The Water Room is most definitely not the book I thought it was going to be when I opened it but it has brought a whole new series into my reading life. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys crime writing or novels set in London, although you should probably start with Full Dark House, the first in the series, as I think some of the back story given in The Water Room relates back to it and could act as a spoiler.