Christopher Fowler's Bryant & May mystery series is only two volumes deep --- the second installment, THE WATER ROOM, being newly published --- yet already it is finding itself on the A-List of many readers, including this one.
There are a lot of adjectives one could apply to it: clever is one, charming is another, riveting a third. The premise of the series is that the London Police Department has a peculiar crimes unit, established during World War II, and at its helm are John May and Arthur Bryant, its two founding members, now well up in years. Bryant is the more eccentric of the two, and thus, may I say, a bit more interesting --- irascible, yearning for the past, and possessed with an indispensably brilliant fuzzy logic. May is more modern, willing to change with the times, and still able to think with his little head when the opportunity arises. The men are polar opposites --- hilariously so --- and thus work perfectly together.
The crimes they investigate sometimes do not appear to be crimes at all, at least not initially. Bryant, however, ferrets out a bizarre element or three, and, after you toss in a hoard of suspects, some quietly brutal circumstances, and Bryant's ongoing penchant for providing a fascinating running commentary for whatever portion of London the team happens to be in, one has a novel that is irresistible by any standard. Think Lord Peter Wimsey meets "The X-Files," or a more sedate version of "The Avengers" with Steed as an octogenarian, and you wouldn't be far off at all.
THE WATER ROOM is an innocuous title, considering what occurs herein. The Peculiar Crimes Unit is drawn into the investigation of the death of an elderly recluse. Such a circumstance would not be unusual, or unexpected, except that the unfortunate woman drowned while sitting upright in her dry basement. Bryant and May become involved at the request of the woman's brother, whose expertise is occasionally used by the unit, even as her death is classified as undetermined and the case is officially closed. Bryant does what he does best, rudely kicking over stones and knocking on doors, leaving a disturbed domestic path among the neighbors of the woman in his wake. Meanwhile, May is unofficially investigating a civil servant who seems to have been retained by a criminal element for nefarious purposes that somehow involve London's underground lost rivers.
One can see the cases dovetailing --- or at least appearing to do so --- but Fowler's pacing, always picture-perfect, will not be rushed. His plotting is wonderful in THE WATER ROOM and yet is eclipsed by the characterization of the primary and secondary principals within. One comes to really like the people encountered on the pages, even Raymond Land, the nominal overseer of the Peculiar Crimes Unit who does his level best to simultaneously keep the unit on track while keeping a blind eye turned to what really is going on.
THE WATER ROOM stands just fine on its own. I had, however, the oddest feeling of yearning after finishing it. I wished that it was merely the latest of a long-running series, one that I had only just discovered, so that I could go read the 40 or 50 volumes that had come before while waiting for the next installment to be released. Indeed, Fowler has published several novels and short story collections previous to THE WATER ROOM. With respect to the Bryant and May books, however, there is, alas, only one other --- last year's brilliant FULL DARK HOUSE. For now, let us be grateful for what we have, and hope for a long and happy life for the series.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011