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The Water Room (Peculiar Crimes Unit Series #2)

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"They are living legends with a reputation for solving even the trickiest cases using unorthodox, unconventional, and often completely unauthorized methods. But the Peculiar Crimes Unit headed by Detectives John May and Arthur Bryant is one mistake away from being shut down for good. And when the elderly sister of Bryant's friend is found dead in the basement of her decrepit house in Kentish Town, they find themselves on the verge of making exactly that mistake." "According to the coroner, Ruth Singh's heart simply stopped beating. But why was a
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The Water Room (Peculiar Crimes Unit Series #2)

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Overview

"They are living legends with a reputation for solving even the trickiest cases using unorthodox, unconventional, and often completely unauthorized methods. But the Peculiar Crimes Unit headed by Detectives John May and Arthur Bryant is one mistake away from being shut down for good. And when the elderly sister of Bryant's friend is found dead in the basement of her decrepit house in Kentish Town, they find themselves on the verge of making exactly that mistake." "According to the coroner, Ruth Singh's heart simply stopped beating. But why was a woman who rarely left the house fully dressed for an outing? And why was there river water in her throat? Convinced that the old lady didn't die a natural death, the detectives delve into a murky case with no apparent motive, no forensics, and no clues. And they've barely launched their investigation when death claims another victim." "Suddenly they discover some very unnatural behavior surrounding Ruth Singh's death by "natural" causes - from shady real estate developers and racist threats to two troubled marriages, from a dodgy academician working London's notorious "grey economy" to a network of antiquities collectors obsessed with Egyptian mythology. And running beneath it all are the sweeping tentacles of London's vast and forgotten underground river system." As the rains pour down and the water rises, Bryant and May must rely on instinct, experience, and their own very peculiar methods to stem a tide of evil that threatens to drown them all.
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Editorial Reviews

Marilyn Stasio
The plot isn't designed to make sense but to draw us into an imaginative funhouse of a world where sage minds go to expand their vistas and sharpen their wits.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Traditional mystery buffs with a taste for the offbeat will relish British author Fowler's wonderful second contemporary whodunit featuring the Peculiar Crimes Unit and its elderly odd couple, Arthur Bryant and John May (after 2004's Full Dark House). A former colleague asks the eccentric Bryant, whose lack of polish coupled with a razor-sharp mind will remind many of Carter Dickson's Sir Henry Merrivale, to investigate his sister's death. Incredibly, the victim was found dead in her basement, apparently drowned, despite the absence of any moisture on her body or her surroundings. Bryant rapidly loops in his more down-to-earth partner, May, who has also been looking into a mystery with a personal connection-the unusual nocturnal ramblings of a disgraced academic who has begun probing London's underground rivers. More strange deaths follow before the unmasking of the surprising murderer. The author's black humor evokes Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond series, and his successful revival of the impossible crime genre is reminiscent of John Sladek's superb Thackeray Phin novels, Invisible Green and Black Aura. Best known for his horror fiction (Rune, etc.), Fowler should win a whole new set of readers with these fair-play puzzlers. Agent, Mandy Little. (June 28) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
During one of the rainiest years in the City's history, the decrepit leaders of London's Peculiar Crimes Unit (Full Dark House, 2004) must navigate two unofficial investigations: the death of elderly Ruth Singh and the skullduggery behind a scholar's research into London's extensive underground river system. Benjamin Singh wants Arthur Bryant to look into his sister's death. He found her in the basement of her Victorian home on Balaklava Street, dressed to go out, hands folded, dead of a heart attack, with her mouth full of river water. Her house is on a street named after a Crimean War battle-as Arthur is quick to point out in one of the innumerable and fascinating digressions on the history of London that bubble up through the story like one of the forgotten subterranean rivers on which London is built. Few people know the network of old waterways as well as academic Gareth Greenwood, who's accepted an all-cash job as a guide to a mysterious Egyptian searching for the "Five Rivers of the Underworld." Greenwood's wife asks Bryant's colleague John May to investigate when Greenwood makes out his will. Meanwhile, two other residents of Balaklava Street die, and the water table is still rising. Fowler's tale-humorous, engaging, at times incoherent-inundates readers with historical details, myths, subplots, and maps and then tacks on a denouement that seems to belong to a separate novel.
From the Publisher
“They’re old, they’re cranky, and their chaotic work habits inevitably lead to disaster. But life always seems livelier whenever Arthur Bryant and John May are on a case!...An imaginative funhouse of a world where sage minds go to expand their vistas and sharpen their wits.” —New York Times Book Review

"Traditional mystery buffs with a taste for the offbeat will relish British author Fowler's wonderful second contemporary whodunit featuring the Peculiar Crimes Unit and its elderly odd couple, Arthur Bryant and John May."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"A clever twist on the traditional police procedural... The real thrill here is the delightful duo in the starring roles, two fresh and unusual characters who manage to breathe new life into an established genre in which it’s getting harder and harder to find anything genuinely fresh."—Booklist

"Humorous, engaging."—Kirkus Reviews

“Entertaining and thrilling.” —Chicago Tribune

“More down to earth than [Jasper] Fforde but just as delightfully quirky.” —Seattle Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553587166
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/2006
  • Series: Peculiar Crimes Unit Series , #2
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 4.10 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Chrisopher Fowler is the acclaimed author of fifteen previous novels, including the award-winning Full Dark House, and four other Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries, White Corridor, The Water Room, Seventy-Seven Clocks, and Ten Second Staircase. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

The Water Room


By Christopher Fowler

Random House

Christopher Fowler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0553803891


Chapter One

1

A CHANGE IN THE WEATHER

Arthur Bryant looked out over London and remembered.

Fierce sunlight swathed Tower Bridge beyond the rockeries of smouldering bomb-sites. A Thames sailing barge was arriving in the Pool of London with a cargo of palm kernels. Its dusty red sails sagged in the afternoon heat as it drifted past Broadway Dock at Limehouse, like a felucca on the Nile. Dairy horses trotted along the deserted Embankment, empty milk cans chiming behind them. Children swam from the wharves below St Paul's, while carping mothers fanned away stale air from the river steps. He could smell horse dung and tobacco, meadow grass, the river. The world had once moved forward in single paces.

The vision wavered and vanished, displaced by sun-flares from the sealed glass corridors of the new city.

The old man in the unravelling sepia scarf waited for the rest of the party to gather around him. It was a Saturday afternoon at the start of October, and London's thirteen-week heatwave was about to end with a vengeance. Already, the wind had changed direction, stippling the surface of the river with grey goose-pimples. Above the spire of St Paul's, patulous white clouds deepened to a shade reminiscent of overwashed socks. The enervating swelter was giving way to a cool breeze, sharp in the shadows. The change had undermined his group's stamina, reducing their numbers to a handful, although four polite but puzzled Japanese boys had joined thinking they were on the Jack the Ripper tour. Once everyone had settled, the elderly guide began the last section of his talk.

'Ladies and gentlemen . . .' He gave them the benefit of the doubt. 'If you would care to gather a little closer.' Arthur Bryant raised his voice as a red wall of buses rumbled past. 'We are now standing on Blackfriars--formerly Pitt--Bridge.' Remember to use the hands, he told himself. Keep their interest. 'Bridges are causeways across great divides, in this case the rich city on the north side--'hand usage to indicate north--'and the more impoverished south side. Does anyone have a Euro note in their pocket? Take it out and you'll find a bridge, the universal symbol for something that unites and strengthens.' He paused, less for effect than to catch his breath. Bryant really had no need to freelance as a city tour guide. His detective duties at the London Peculiar Crimes Unit would have kept a man half his age working late. But he enjoyed contact with the innocent public; most of the civilians he met in his day job were under criminal suspicion. Explaining the city to strangers calmed him down, even helped him to understand himself.

He pulled his ancient scarf tighter and abandoned his set text. What the hell, they were the last group of the season, and had proven pretty unresponsive. 'According to Disraeli,' he announced, ' "London is a nation, not a city." "That great cesspool into which all the loungers of the Empire are irresistibly drained," said Conan Doyle. "No duller spectacle on earth than London on a rainy Sunday afternoon," according to De Quincey, so take your pick. One of the planet's great crossing-points, it has more languages, religions and newspapers than any other place on earth. We divide into tribes according to age, wealth, class, race, religion, taste and personality, and this diversity breeds respect.' Two members of the group nodded and repeated the word 'diversity', like an Oxford Street language class. God, this lot's hard work, thought Bryant. I'm gasping for a cup of tea.

'London's main characteristic is an absence of form. Its thirty-three boroughs have busy districts running through them like veins, with no visible hierarchy, and neighbourhood ties remain inexplicably close. Because Londoners have a strongly pronounced sense of home, where you live counts more than who you are.' Bryant mostly lived inside his head. Remember the facts, he told himself, they like facts.

'We have six royal parks, 160 theatres, 8,600 restaurants, 300 museums and around 30,000 shops. Over 3,500 criminal offences are reported every day. Poverty and wealth exist side by side, often in the same street. Bombings caused slum clearance and social housing, rupturing centuries-old barriers of class, turning the concept into something mysterious and ever-shifting. London is truly unknowable.'

Bryant looked past his under-dressed audience to the swirling brown river. The Japanese boys were bored and cold, and had started taking pictures of litter bins. One of them was listening to music. 'A city of cruelty and kindness, stupidity and excess, extremes and paradoxes,' he told them, raising his voice. 'Almost half of all journeys through the metropolis are made on foot. A city of glass, steel, water and flesh that no longer smells of beer and brick, but piss and engines.'

He lifted his silver-capped walking stick to the sky. 'The arches of London's Palladian architecture lift and curve in secular harmonies. Walls of glass reflect wet pavements in euphonious cascades of rain.' He was no longer addressing the group, but voicing his thoughts. 'We're heading for winter, when a caul of sluggishness deepens into thanatomimesis, the state of being mistaken for death. But the city never dies; it just lies low. Its breath grows shallow in the cold river air while housebound tenants, flu-ridden and fractious with the perpetual motion of indoor activity, recover and grow strong once more. London and its people are parasites trapped in an ever-evolving symbiosis. At night the residents lose their carapace of gentility, bragging and brawling through the streets. The old London emerges, dancing drunk skeletons leaving graveyard suburbs to terrify the faint of heart.'

Now even the hardiest listeners looked confused. They spoke to each other in whispers and shook their heads. Their guide seemed to be straying from his topic: 'A Historic Thameside Walk'. The Japanese boys gave up and wandered off. Someone said, rather loudly, 'This tour was much better last time. There was a café.'

Bryant carried on, regardless.

'London no longer suffers from the weight of its past. Now only the faintest resonance of legendary events remains. Oh, I can show you balustrades, pillars and scrollwork, point out sites of religious and political interest, streets that have witnessed great events, but to be honest there's bugger all to see. It's impossible to imagine the lives of those who came before us. Our visible history has been rubbed to a trace, like graffiti scrubbed from Portland stone. London has reinvented itself more completely than ever. And whoever grows up here becomes a part of its human history.'

He had completely lost his listeners. They were complaining to each other in dissatisfaction and disarray. 'That concludes the tour for today,' he added hastily. 'I think we'll skip question time, you've been a truly dreadful audience.' He decided not to bother with his tip box as the mystified, grumbling group was forced to disperse across the windy bridge.

Bryant looked toward the jumble of outsized apartment buildings being constructed at the edge of the Thames, the yellow steel cranes clustered around them like praying mantises. After so many years in the service, he was quick to sense approaching change. Another wave of executives was colonizing the riverbank, creating a new underclass. He wondered how soon the invasion would provoke fresh forms of violence.

It's metabolizing quickly, he thought. How long before it becomes unrecognizable? How can I hope to understand it for much longer?

He turned up his collar as he passed the urban surfers of the South Bank car park. The clatter of their skateboards bounced between the concrete arcades like the noise of shunting trains. Kids always found ways to occupy ignored spaces. He emerged into daylight and paced at the river rail, studying the evolving skyline of the Thames.

Hardly anything left of my childhood memories.

The Savoy, St Paul's, the spire of St Bride's, a few low monuments palisaded by international banks as anonymous as cigarette boxes. A city in an apostasy of everything but money. Even the river had altered. The ships and barges, no longer commercially viable, had left behind an aorta of bare brown water. Eventually only vast hotels, identical from Chicago to Bangkok, would remain.

As ever, Londoners had found ways of cutting grand new structures down to human size. The 'Blade of Light' connecting St Paul's to Bankside had become known as 'The Wobbly Bridge'. The Swiss Re building had been rechristened 'The Erotic Gherkin' long before its completion. Names were a sign of affection, to be worn like guild colours. The old marks of London, from its financial institutes to its market buildings, were fading from view like vanishing coats of arms.

I've been walking this route for over half a century, Bryant thought, stepping aside for a wave of shrieking children. A Mexican band was playing in the foyer of the Festival Hall. People were queueing for an art event involving tall multi-coloured flags. He remembered walking through the black empty streets after the War, and feeling completely alone. It was hard to feel alone here now. He missed the sensation.

His fingers closed around the keys in his pocket. Sergeant Longbright had mentioned she might go into the unit today in order to get things straight for Monday. He preferred to work out of hours, when the phonelines were closed and he could leave papers all over the floor without complaint. He could join Janice, collect his thoughts, smoke his pipe, prepare himself for a fresh start. For a woman who had recently retired, Longbright showed an alarming enthusiasm for returning.

For the past month, the Peculiar Crimes Unit--or rather, what was left of it--had been shunted into two sloping rooms above Sid Smith's barbershop in Camden Town, while its old offices were being rebuilt. The relocation had been forced by a disastrous explosion that had destroyed the interior of the building and years of case files. The ensuing chaos had badly affected Bryant, whose office was virtually his home. He had lost his entire collection of rare books and artefacts in the blaze. Worse than that, he had yet to recover his dignity. The sheer embarrassment of being presumed dead! At least they had uncovered a long-dormant murderer, even if their methodology had proven highly abnormal.

But of course, nothing at the PCU had ever been normal. Founded as an experimental unit during the War to handle the cases no one else understood, let alone wanted, the detectives had built a reputation for defusing politically sensitive and socially embarrassing situations, using unorthodox and controversial methods. Some of the more rule-bound Met officers hated their guts, but most of the force's foot soldiers regarded them as living legends, if only because they had repeatedly refused promotion to keep their status as ordinary detectives.

Bryant climbed the trash-stickered steps to Waterloo Bridge and hailed a taxi. Thirteen weeks of airless summer heat had passed without rain, but now the warmth was fading from the yellow London brick, and there was moisture in the rising breeze. The autumn chill stealing up the river would bring rheumatism and new strains of influenza. Already he could feel his joints starting to ache. The only thing that would take his mind off the problems of old age was hard work.

He dug into a pocket and found his pewter flask, granting himself a small nip of cherry brandy. When he was alone he thought too much. John May was the only person who could bring calm to his sense of escalating panic. Their fifty-year-plus partnership had the familiarity of an old radio show. The bald head gave a little shake within its yards of musty scarf; Bryant told himself he would never consider retiring again. The thought of doing so made him feel ill. When the unit reopened in its rightful office on Monday morning, he would return to his desk beside John and Janice, and stay in harness until the day he died. After all, it was where he was needed most. It would be important to show he could still do the job. And he had nothing else without it.

2

THE FIRST DEATH OF AUTUMN

'I came to you, Mr Bryant,' said Benjamin Singh, 'because you have such an incredible capacity to be annoying.'

'I can't imagine what you mean,' said Bryant, stuffing his bentwood pipe with a mixture of Old Holborn and eucalyptus leaves.

'I mean you can get things done by badgering people. I don't trust the regular police. They're distracted and complacent. I'm glad you are still here. I thought you would have retired by now. You are so very, very far past retirement age.'

Bryant fixed his visitor with an evil eye. Mr Singh dabbed his cheeks with a paper handkerchief. He hadn't been crying; it was a gesture of respect for the dead. He paused to take stock of his surroundings. 'I'm sorry, have you been burgled?' he asked.

'Oh, no.' Bryant fanned out his match and sucked noisily on the pipe. 'The unit burned down. Well, it blew up and burned down. They're still rebuilding it and we haven't had time to unpack anything yet. We don't officially reopen for business until ten o'clock this morning. It's only nine, you know. It'll be a nightmare around here later because we've got painters, carpenters and IT bods turning up. There's no floor in the toilet. Health and Safety said they wouldn't be responsible if we moved in, but we couldn't stay above a barbershop. It doesn't help that I'm also in the middle of moving house, and appear to have mislaid all my socks. Sorry, do please go on.'

'Perhaps we should go and see Mr Singh's sister,' ventured Sergeant Longbright.

'No one will move her body until I tell them to, Janice.' Bryant shot her a look.

Longbright knew better than to argue with Arthur's working methods. The inability of the Peculiar Crimes Unit to conduct its affairs in a conventional manner was embarrassingly well documented. Having abandoned attempts to make it properly accountable, the Home Office had now separated the unit from Metropolitan Police jurisdiction and placed it under the nebulous security services of MI7.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Water Room by Christopher Fowler Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 15 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 16 of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 26, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Intelligent, witty and quirky

    You cannot go wrong with any of Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit tomes. The two main characters, elder detectives, are real and charming. The stories are engaging, and the minute historical details related to the theme (each book has a different one) are fascinating. The Peculiar Crime Unit series is an absolute joy to read: mentally stimulating and very, very satisfying, chock full of offbeat humor and perspicacity. Buy one, curl up in your favorite chair with a cup of tea and prepare to engage. Note: This one is the second in the series.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2009

    The Peculiar Crimes Unit is once again involved in solving a set of very mysterious deaths.

    The uniqueness of the characters and the set up of the situations leads the reader to come to many incorrect conclusions regarding the mysterious deaths as the story progresses. Never boring.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    fine geriatric police procedural

    In London, the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) continues to work out of leased office space while their facility is being repaired having been devastated by an explosion followed by a fire. Team leaders Arthur Bryant and John May are used to the ups and downs for their odd squad having been doing this job for over five decades with the threat of shut down always over their shoulders as the squad handles the nasty cases rejected by other police units. However, the threat this time is different. The two aging leaders informed have six months to turn the unit around to include following the rule book or cantankerous Arthur and cranky John will be retired. --- Long time friend Benjamin Singh visits Arthur to complain about the local police ignoring the death of his sister Ruth and to plead with the copper to take a look at the crime scene. Arthur is shocked that the recluse drowned while sitting on a dry chair in a dry room. As PCU investigates, they find themselves at odds with realtors who want the area for development and racists who want the Indian population removed. Meanwhile someone is killing people using hidden passages from the rivers flowing beneath the city to perform the act. --- The latest geriatric police procedural is a fabulous tale as the case begins as a seemingly minor scenario blossoms into a watery serial killer. The story line is fast-paced as the two aging not so gracefully detectives assisted by Sergeant Longbright begin making inquires while influential realtors run off to the brass to shut them down. Christopher Fowler writes a fine tale starring a pair of peevish protagonists that sub-genre friends will appreciate and want more capers.--- Harriet Klausner

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 26, 2014

    I wasn't sure what i was getting into with this book, but I'm gl

    I wasn't sure what i was getting into with this book, but I'm glad I did.
    A great collection of eccentric characters. All of whom are quite believable.
    I felt for their challenge of needing to prove themselves to the department. And the interweaving of the multiple storylines works very well. I knew they had to be related, but how?
    This would be particularly interesting to someone who knows London or wishes to travel there vicariously.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2014

    Very interesting and wonderful characters. Arthur Bryant is har

    Very interesting and wonderful characters. Arthur Bryant is hard to beat anywhere. This is my favorite mystery series. I think they are best if you read them in order but you don't have to.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2013

    O.K.

    I don't know London well enough to know about their tunnels. The book kept losing my interest.
    Plot was good and so was the suspect. I thought that was who did it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2013

    AAA

    I love this series and have read all but one. They are easy to read and the two senior detectives are very likeable and make the stories very entertaining. No blood and gore, just very interesting little mysteries, that are great all the way to the last page. I especially enjoyed this one! (Catpurrson)

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    Posted April 27, 2011

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