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Locked Room Reviews:
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There are good mysteries and there is good literature – and on quite rare occasions the two coincide inside the covers of a single volume! Christopher Fowler’s wonderful Bryant and May novel, ‘The Water Room’, is clearly one of those rarities, though, oddly, few reviewers seem to have recognized this book’s true value. Fowler provides us with a highly symbolic journey that gradually builds to a shattering crescendo which has more in common with Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, than it does with your average run of the mill whodunnit! This is, quite simply, one of the best mysteries of the modern era – and it also has a great impossible crime element. Who could ask for anything more?
The Bryant and May series are one of the most clever and erudite additions to the mystery genre in many years. Arthur Bryant and John May are portrayed as the perfect octogenarian odd couple of polar opposites which attract. They long ago found a working harmony somewhere between Bryant’s blatant eccentricities and lateral thinking and May’s flawed common man image, backed up by his common sense logic. Together they have forged a crime fighting partnership that has been unravelling seemingly impossible crimes for several decades within the book timeline, though this is only the second volume in this series. And, if this charming pair of detectives is not sufficient to arouse your interest, these novels are all set against the backdrop of grimy, vibrant, enchanting, old London, which Fowler has clearly made the third star of this very engaging series.
In a fairly recent Interview with Dead Good Books, Fowler tells us about the unusual process that went into creating this strange pair of detectives: “I wanted to create two Golden Age detectives in a modern setting. I made Bryant & May old to dispense with the ageism that suggests only the young can do their jobs well. Older characters bring a lifetime of experience. I started with a matchbox label that read “Bryant & May – England’s Glory”. That gave me their names, their nationality, and something vague and appealing, the sense of an institution with roots in London’s sooty past.”
By the time of this novel, Bryant and May have worked together for well over fifty years, investigating odd occurrences at the ‘Peculiar Crimes Unit’ (PCU), which takes on cases the regular police force cannot cope with, nor want to, and which always seem to involve all manner of impossible occurrences and other oddities. While most of these cases are technically not locked rooms, nor are they all completely impossible crimes, each case is so bizarre that they we simply must bend the rules and include their intoxicating magic in the locked room genre.
However, the reader must be careful not to over emphasize the differences between Bryant and May. Both detectives are more than a little quirky, and have long been resigned to their opposing personality traits, in a manner that could only have developed over a long period of incubation, with the greatest care and patience. In fact, it seems quite clear that it is only through the cross sublimation of these superficial oppositions, that have they managed to form such a deep underlying unity and an effective partnership. The differences, at first glance, may seem overwhelming, until you begin to recognize the internal inconsistencies. Arthur has a deep attraction to the supernatural and arcane, but also a vast storehouse of practical knowledge about London and crime. His gruff manner appears to resent youth, yet he quickly develops a sincere affection for several young characters. Bryant also has an undisputed ability to destroy technology with a single touch, yet harbours an inquisitive nature that appreciates the easy flow of information it provides. He is often starkly portrayed as a lonely introvert, yet this loneliness is continually punctuated by an eclectic collection of co-workers, friends, and ‘experts’. While Bryant may appear to be starkly in contrast with May’s faith in the logical deductive process, May is the one who lives a highly charged emotional life that often threatens to undermine his judgment. At times, May is also made to appear as the champion of social justice and diversity, yet it is Arthur who exhibits the more developed social conscience. The reader can be left with absolutely no doubt that Bryant is authentic, but this remains an open question with respect to May. He clearly loves his high tech gadgets, and channels youth, vigour, and change, but the reader is left to wonder if this is valid – or simply May’s way of denying his octogenarian status. Perhaps most ironically, May is the ‘people person’ who continually accuses Bryant of driving others away, while he is the one with a long record of divorces and broken relationships, and the one who is still looking for love in all the wrong places in his sunset years. Who is truly the lonely old man in a world that worships youth and change? Is it the upbeat extrovert, with no deep attachments, or the curmudgeonly introvert, who has few illusions and a deep sense of loyalty to his friends, though his feelings usually remains half hidden behind a thin mask. Bryant and May are definitely superficial opposites, with vastly different coping strategies for dealing with a world of constant change – yet down at the core they are both products of their age with a remarkably similar set of values.
‘The Water Room’ begins just as an exceptionally warm, dry summer comes to end, ushering in one of the rainiest falls in the city’s history. Arthur Bryant & John May are just returning to the PCU’s old office, which has been under repair since it was blown to pieces in the series opener ‘Full Dark House’ (2003). The group has now been been officially reconstituted under the Home Office & MI7, and is no longer directly under the Metropolitan police. Bryant, May, and the still alluring Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright have returned, joined by a new team, including the homeric Constable Colin Bimsley, who is partnered with Meera Mangeshkar, raised in the tough streets of South London. There is also Dan Banbury, the group tech geek, and Giles Kershaw, the forensics guru, who is attempting to replace the now semi-retired Oswald Finch – and, of course, there is the eighth man, the surly bureaucratic ogre at the top, Raymond Land.
The unit arrives in their new office with a clean slate, but while waiting for their first officially designated cases, they become immersed in two unofficial investigations; the death of elderly Ruth Singh in Balaklava Street, and the suspicious activities of a scholar who is being too well paid to investigate some unknown aspect of London’s extensive underground river system.
The first case arrives with Benjamin Singh, an old friend of Bryant’s, who drags him into the death of his sister, Ruth Singh. He has just found her in the basement of her Victorian home on Balaklava Street, dressed to go out, with hands calmly folded, and cold dead. The scene is merely odd at first glance, but it soon becomes clear that natural causes can be ruled out, as her mouth and throat are full of nasty toxic river water, even though the rest of the room, and her clothes and hair, show no signs of immersion. Hints of racism soon surface, though Ruth had no roots in India, and this focuses the PCU’s interest on her Victorian neighbourhood. Balaclava Street – named after a Crimean War battle – is a bit of an island floating amidst the crushing, violent flow of daily London life, and is sitting right on top of one of the seven forgotten rivers which flow beneath this bustling city. It is this vast network of tunnels and canals, slowly built over the centuries – gradually swallowing even the once might Fleet – which lies at the very heart of this entire case, and provides the only tenuous link between Ruth’s drowning and the unit’s second unofficial case. This investigation, begun by May at the request of a one time lover, is looking into the activities of her husband, Gareth Greenwood, an academic with extensive knowledge of these ancient waterways. A shady Egyptian crook, Jackson Ubeda, with priors for larceny and fraud, has apparently hired Greenwood to make use of his expertise, setting off all sorts of security alarm bells!
Into the midst of this growing autumnal tempest, Kallie Owen, a model, and her boyfriend, Paul Garrow, stumble on stage like a pair of lost waifs. Tired of moving to escape crooked landlord’s, Kallie wants a place to call home, and when she visits her old school friend, Heather Allen of Balaclava Street, they soon convince Benjamin Singh to sell her the now vacant adjoining house of his sister – forming the bargain which sets the whole devilish storm in motion. It sounds like the perfect solution for the young couple, until Kallie begins to be plagued by the constant sound of rushing water, a deluge of leaks, swollen doors and windows, and strange damp patches that mysteriously appear and disappear on the faded walls. Before long Paul has left, apparently ‘to find himself in Europe’, and she is left abandoned, entirely alone as the tempest gradually builds, both without and within.
This is a very difficult novel to review without giving numerous spoiler alerts, so it will have to be sufficient to note that Ruth Singh is only the first to die on Balaklava Street, and that the rain keeps falling harder, and the water rising, as the pace of events quickly accelerates, and drags each of the neighbours on this street into the heart of a gathering storm, while, behind the scenes, a disturbed homeless man, initially known only as ‘Tate’, acts as the principal harbinger of an even more violent tempest that is already lurking on the horizon.
Fowler has so many overlapping themes running through this novel, that it is hard to find a place to begin. The primary theme is clearly the eternal and inevitably struggle between the four ancient elements, fire, air, earth, and water. The first murder announces the arrival of water, which engulfs earth in the second murder, and a earth denies air in the third death, which is soon followed by a deadly fire, though water remains the stage master of this entire performance – an ever increasing presence that increasingly comes to dominate the thoughts of Kallie and her neighbours, and the mind of the reader. This is water unrelenting. Water that carries away the earth beneath your feet. Water that denies the warmth of the air and invades the breath and the brain. The summer had been the season of fire and air and baked earth, now water is in the ascendant, and it has come to wipe the slate clean. Fowler quotes from MacBeth in the dedication – “A little water clears us of this deed” – but as was the case with the Scottish royals, it takes far more than a quick rinse to remove such a deep stain! The images of water and tempest that Fowler throws about with such abandon are so extravagant that water completely dominates the mood of the entire novel, leaving the puckish Constable Bimsley to finally announce “a disturbance in the force” as the situation slides into elemental anarchy.
All of which brings us to another aspect of this central theme, that old notion of a ‘sea change’, with ‘The Water Room’ becoming Fowler’s modern rendition of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, casting an alienated shipwreck of neighbours and police onto the isolated chaos of Balaclava street-island. It would be quite ridiculous to suggest that each character has a Shakespearian alter ego, yet perhaps not too much of a stretch to cast Tate as a magical Prospero, secretly manipulating events, or Kallie, as his adopted Miranda, now ensconced in her one true home, confronting the inevitable tempest that has been spawned by all the deceit and infidelity that have taken hold of a once prosperous kingdom. This gathering storm will prove to be a test of character, a settling of old grudges, a resurrection of the good, and a breach of the inauthentic, in the lives of each character. To survive the storm, one must only remain true to one’s self, and allow the storm to scour away the evil that has gradually accumulated, like the black sludge in a river bed, and finally wash it far away into the depths of the endless blue sea.
Another related, yet quite distinct, theme focuses on that loaded word ‘home’. The other quote Fowler chose to uses in his dedication is by Dickens: “Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest cunjuration” and just a little later, Fowler cannot resist framing this passage with a little bit of Nietzsche: “Every word is a prejudice.”
And there is no shortage of houses and homeless waiting to be united. Bryant has left home and taken new quarters, leaving his landlady after 40 years of conjoined life; Kallie has found a home and is fighting to save it; Heather has lost a home and it is tearing her apart; Ruth drowns in her one true home; Benjamin heads to a new home in Australia; Mark Garrett sells and buys homes and people; Paul runs away from home; Elliot Copeland has a house but no real home, Tamsin & Oliver Wilton are just playing house; Jake Avery & Aaron, a gay couple, are trying to turn a house into a home; while Randall & Kayla Ayson are allowing a home to slowly fall apart. Just a little deeper in the background, the Egyptian immigrants Omar & Fatima, as well as the Ethiopians at the end of the block, along with the entire multitude of London immigrants, and all those lost refugees hiding in the sewer, are engaged in a life or death struggle to find a new and better home – and through this global process, they are forever changing London, a ‘home’ that has been changing forever, both above and just below the surface. This constant theme of homes falling down and being resurrected is immensely powerful, as Dickens reminds us, and Fowler employs it extremely well, gently leading the reader to question our basic right to come ‘home’ in the midst of a tempest that is threatening our entire global village. He then concludes by luring us down a path of sorrow, before presenting us with a parting gift, as precious as any gem. It is a single Dutch word with no direct translation – “Gezellig”: the need to be ‘comfortable with friends’, one of the most basic human necessities, whether you live in the Middle East, Balaklava Street, the darkest haunts of the homeless, or the violent immigrant neighbourhoods of Meera Mangeshkar.
Yet another theme which winds it’s way through this vast, untidy, novel is the need to find balance in all our endeavours It echoes through nearly every scene: There is that delicate balance between logic and intituition, which is central to the Bryant – May relationship; a rather murky balance between the natural and supernatural; an eternal balance between the energy of youth and the wisdom of experience; a fine psychological balance between agoraphobia and claustrophobia; a relational balance between loneliness and infidelity; a problematic balance between social integration and individual authenticity, and then there is that carefully guided tour along a narrow ridge which separates the holy white magic of spirit from the profane black magic of evil and religion. Fowler never stops comparing these vibrant images until the very last page, as he presents the tried and true Bryant and May solution to the human dilemma. It is a fairly elegant solution, one which finds unity in constant opposition; hope in the inevitable purification of elemental forces; freedom in mutual commitment to relationships; new life in solving the old riddles of the dead; and finally a level of true contentment in the mere fact that we still survive this voyage. Not all will survive, that is an existential given, but Fowler promises that we will be better, if we only stay the course through all weather. Better, perhaps, like Bryant & May, for simply being older and having suffered through more storms than the young, who are just setting out on their own voyage aboard that ‘Vessel of All Counted Sorrows’ – that grail like object of the search by Greenwood and Ubeda, who unknowingly rebalance an old injustice.
‘The Water Room’ can easily be read as a piece of light entertainment, but just below the surface there is an incredible depth – if you care to take the dive. There is far too much going on in this novel to be contained in this already far too lengthy review, and it is one of those books that just gets deeper if you sail by a second time. The only real criticism I encountered while wading through other reviews, focused on the rather slow pace at the beginning. It is a valid point, but this is clearly an essential part of creating the breathtaking acceleration, once the tempest begins to rise, after which the reader is carried along like a kayak over white water rapids, twisting and gyrating along the surface of a storm that is almost beyond the author’s control.
A few final notes:
While I have not spent enough of my life in London (as that is quite impossible), Christopher Fowler’s love and knowledge of the city is obvious on every page.
The plot is extremely well crafted, and few will be entirely certain about whodunnit until the final moment, despite a plethora of fair clues, since Fowler also loads us up with a bumper haul of red herrings, which appear to implicate every character who has lived in the street at one point or another.
What really makes this book tick is the fascinating character of Bryant, and his long term partnership with May and Longbright, which creates a great deal of vibrant and thought provoking dialogue, all based in a ‘to be revealed’ back story that speaks of long years of camaraderie and mutual aggravation.
‘The Water Room’, like all the Bryant and May cases, is a complete novel in itself and it is quite clearly not necessary to read the series in order, especially considering that later plots often wander off into reminiscences from the past.
As a final comment, I want to express true empathy with the AreYouObsessedWithReading blog where the author, with faux naivety, accurately captures the mood as you the finish this novel: “I was a bit disappointed to learn that the unit was indeed fictional as I would have loved for it to have been a real thing.” How true!
How to rate this amazing book? No question that this is a full five star creation, from one of the most talented mystery authors of this generation. It may not be a strictly by the book locked room plot, but it is clearly right up there with Carr and the other great masters of this genre.
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