The Peculiar Crimes Unit of London's Metropolitan Police handles some very peculiar crimes indeed. For example, in The Water Room, we have the case of an elderly woman who drowns in river water in her basement, but there is no water in the room and no evidence that the body had been moved. How did the woman's dead body, dressed to go out shopping and seated on a chair in her basement, end up with filthy river water in her throat? That's just the kind of question for which Arthur Bryant and John May thrive on finding answers.
Bryant and May are the two cranky, quirky detectives who have been partners for fifty years and who are the very heart and soul of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. It seems only fair since they are very peculiar detectives.
In this instance, Bryant intuits that Ruth Singh, the dead woman in the basement, did not die a natural death, and so he and May and other members of their unit set out to prove that a murder has occurred, even though there is no apparent motive, no forensics, and no clues. They interview neighbors, investigate the history of the neighborhood, and search for the thread that will lead them to the solution to what they are convinced is a crime.
In the midst of their investigation, another death occurs in the neighborhood. A workman is buried in mud and suffocates, in what seems like an obvious accident, but once again Bryant and May are convinced that there is more here than meets the eye and that the cave-in of mud that was the instrument of death actually was caused by human intervention. But how to ever prove it?
Then a third death occurs on the street and this time there is no question that it is murder. The victim dies in his bed with clingfilm wrapped several times around his head. Three suffocations, each by different methods. Surely they are somehow related.
All the while, the rain keeps pouring down and the street where the deaths occurred is threatened with inundation as London's secret underground and forgotten rivers fill up and overflow.
Bryant, who is the instinctual member of the team, consults with witches and psychics, and equally unconventional sources to come up with a theory of what has happened. His investigative method is eccentric, but even though he is rude to everyone with whom he interacts, he does accumulate information and does begin to understand what might have happened.
May, on the other hand, follows a somewhat more conventional path but still wanders into weird territory as he seeks a solution to the crimes.
London, itself, seems a character in this story. There is abundant information about the topography and history of the city and particularly about the underground rivers that play such a central part in the mystery of the deaths and in their solution. Bryant and May follow the winding course of the subterranean tributaries that lead them eventually to the answers they seek. Answers that will allow the Peculiar Crimes Unit, always one major mistake away from being dissolved, to exist for another day.
This was an enjoyable read. Christopher Fowler seems really fond of his two ancient detectives and writes of them with empathy and humor. He also writes lovingly of London, its culture, and its people. I found myself invested in the characters and wanting to see them succeed. In that, Fowler did not disappoint.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars