Filed under: fiction
The water room / Christopher Fowler.
New York : Bantam Books, 2005.
[MCL call number: MYSTERY FOWLER; seven copes, no holds]
One interesting (and perhaps disturbing) feature of cities is their wholehearted subjugation of the natural environments they replace. Of course any group of people taxes natural resources — water, air, fuel, food, and so on — but a city’s high concentration of people in a small space over a period of time produces such an intense use of resources that it is impossible for the local natural environment to continue in its original course.
Many cities are built on rivers, or alongside ocean or lake ports. Available water is one of the most basic requirements for human settlements, but when settlements grow into towns and then into cities, people are very quick to interfere with their water sources, in various ways and for various reasons. Perhaps one of the most common ways is to divert, drain, or bury any water that is in the way of development. The city is built to seem as if none of this has happened, but underneath the streets and houses and parks and office buildings, much of that water is still there.
The mystery in The Water Room is predicated on the continuing existence of rivers underneath the city of London, and on their continuing ability to exert pressure on the fabric of the city. As the book opens, Detectives John May and Arthur Bryant are occupied with the project of re-forming London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, a small and decidedly unorthodox police unit which investigates freaky things — kind of like a more sedate, more intellectual, and tweedier version of The X Files.
The Peculiar Crimes Unit has no assigned cases, and when an old friend comes to Bryant with news of his elderly sister’s odd and sudden death, Bryant seizes on the project of puzzling out what happened. How did she drown in water from the River Thames, sitting up in a chair, fully dressed and tidy as can be, in her own completely dry basement? Soon the entire unit is occupied with researching Egyptian mythology and Victorian spiritualism, tracking the history of local buildings, questioning the deceased’s neighbors, tailing a wayward academic as he travels to clandestine meetings with gritty underworld types, and of course opening up sewer grates and wandering around underground. The rivers become major characters in the story, and like any truly three-dimensional and well-written characters, they are complex and unpredictable even as they become familiar and interesting to the reader.
[thanks, Mary Lou]
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For those of you who want to read another mystery featuring London’s underground rivers, try the Lord Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane mystery Thrones, Dominations, by Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh (St. Martin’s Press, c1998; mentioned in a review of another Paton Walsh novel in Duck Duck Book number 34). Or, for a nonfiction discussion, consult N. J. Barton’s The Lost Rivers of London : A Study of Their Effects Upon London and Londoners and the Effects of London and Londoners Upon Them (Phoenix House, 1962, and Historical Publications, 1992; reviewed in Duck Duck Book number 20).
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