Wednesday, May 14, 2008

London Underground (The Water Room by Christopher Fowler)

I am glad I have stuck with Christopher Fowler's The Water Room, the second in the Bryant & May series of mysteries because, my initial reservations notwithstanding, it's gotten much more interesting. There is a link between the suspicious death of an elderly Indian woman in a residential neighborhood, an expert in London's underground waterways, and some shady dealings in Egyptology that felt rather coincidental when it was introduced, but 150 pages later I seem to be able to ignore that. And I have gotten used to the televisiony tone that this book takes. The initial book in the series was mostly set in World War II London, so the tone was much different and I felt Fowler established a sense of that time very convincingly. There are two things I am particularly enjoying in this book. One is the hay Fowler makes of how different Bryant is from your average cop and how different Bryant and May's Peculiar Crimes Unit is from your average MET department:
Land hastily moved on down the corridor. Amidst the newly purchased equipment in the unit's crime lab, he found Kershaw and Banbury tinkering with an oven tray full of wet sand and a toy truck. 'What on earth are you two up to?' he asked.

'Giles is explaining the physical dynamics of accidental death,' Banbury explained, not at all clearly. 'My territory, reall, but Giles got there first.'

'So this is your doing.'

'Mr. Bryant gave me the idea. It's all right, I've got a job number for it.'

'Why am I not surprised?' Land asked the wall as he passed on. At least Bimsley seemed to be doing something useful, scanning reams of figures on his computer, but Meera Mangeshkar was lying on the floor. She scrambled to her feet as Land entered. 'Sorry, sir, spot of yoga - put my back out last night.'

'On your own time or in the course of duty?'

'Duty, sir. Apprehending a suspicious character.'

'You booked him?'

'No, sir. Vanished into thin air. Literally. Quite impossible, I know, almost as if he flew away, but there you are.'

They're all mad, thought Land. This is Bryant's doing. He tainted them with his lunacy. John's marginally more rational. I'll appeal to his common sense. He headed for the detectives' room...

Land stood in the doorway, fuming. Bryant had decorated the area around his desk exactly as it had been before the fire. Statuettes of Gog and Magog, voodoo dolls, his beloved Tibetan skull, books with reeking singed covers rescued from the conflagration, some odoriferous plants that lay tangled in an earthenware pot - tannis root, probably, marijuana, certainly - an ancient Dansette record player scratching and popping its way through Mendelssohn's 'Elijah', papers and newspaper clippings everywhere, a half-eaten egg-and-beetroot sandwich dripping on to a stack of uncased computer disks.
The other is the important role the underground waterways of London are playing in the plot of this mystery. While the link was clear from the get go, the extraordinary amount of arcana heaped on the reader was making me feel damp. But the sense of a nearly invisible world racing beneath the everyday visible one has become an essential part of this mystery and I now find myself looking forward to the next tidbit I am going to pick up on the submerged rivers which also figured prominently in The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson's fascinating book about the 1854 cholera outbreak in London (I wrote about it here). I am making a quick jaunt to London in about a month and wish I had enough time to take a walking tour about this underground network of water (if one exists). I used to think I was going to visit this urban center of theaters which also had a funny bridge and a quaint royal family - now I feel like I'm going to the swamp and should look out for alligators!

For those of you familiar with London, which is your "don't miss" bookstore(s)?

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