Christopher Fowler’s The Water Room is another outing for his Peculiar Crimes Unit and its detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, with London’s lost underground rivers playing a central part.
As with the other titles in the series, Fowler takes the traditional – even clichéd – murder mystery framework from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but gives it a contemporary and very London setting. That emphasis on the details of London is one of the book’s real charms given how much detective fiction is dominated by American settings. In The Water Room the plot heavily features mostly accurate obscure details about London’s underground rivers and how they have been diverted, controlled and lost over time. Or, as Fowler puts it at the start, “The most bizarre facts in this book are the truest”.
Against the backdrop of this detailed London setting, Christopher Fowler develops very rich characters and manages what many detective authors struggle with. To give a plot drama often requires holding information back from the reader, but how do you plausibly have characters leave out key pieces of information? Arthur Conan Doyle managed to create such a great character in Sherlock Holmes that Holmes’s frequent failure to tell Doctor Watson key pieces of information seemed (most of the time) a natural extension of his immodest and solitary nature, but other authors often really struggle. Fowler succeeds by cleverly cutting to and from scenes so that it isn’t a matter of key information being left out, but rather the reader just not being present at the points at which the information would have been given away.
Christopher Fowler also makes some room for the necessary absurdities of an outlandish set of murders by having more than one character lose their mental health in plausible ways. That in turn provides a plausible base for people doing some fairly implausible things because, after all, they’re not fully sane, so what do you expect?
This all makes the book more than simply a traditional murder mystery in modern clothes. It is also an incidental history of London and the plot is the backdrop against which characters entertain. That means the plot is at times a little slow moving, but to me that makes the moments of drama and action all the more enjoyable – for as with cricket, it is the switches of pace from the slow and the sedate to the hurried and dramatic that is part of the entertainment.
One small warning about this book: it gives away several key plot details from the previous book in the series, Full Dark House. So even if you are not usually a stickler for reading all of a series in order, this is one occasion when that is a good idea.