Jim Kelly, The Water Clock
2002, published in Penguin paperback 2003 (304 pages)
Thursday 1 November: Provincial newspaper reporter Philip Dryden urgently needs a story, and the latest news is more promising than usual. The police have hauled a car out of the river with a mutilated corpse in the boot. A "Hunt for Fen Killer" is on.
The next day, a second body is found in the roof guttering of Ely Cathedral. Lichen growth suggests it has been there for more than thirty years.
So the police are dealing with two murders discovered within a very short space of time, and Dryden has a chance to get the most important story in the time he has been back working in Cambridgeshire. There are a lot of unanswered questions, not just who killed the two men, but who the dead men were, not to mention the question of motive.
This is all quite a change for Philip Dryden, who has given up a high pressure national newspaper job to work on a local weekly in the area he comes from, so that he can combine earning a living with visiting his wife, Laura, in hospital. Laura has been in a coma for two years, since a car crash.
This story starts off very slowly, with lots of rather disconnected passages to piece together, as Dryden travels around pursuing his story, dashes back to the newspaper office, visits his wife in hospital. We are introduced to his workplace and the hospital and there are flashbacks to what happened previously.
At first I found all this rather bitty and confusing. However, as the story unfolded I became absorbed and fascinated, and to care about the main character quite a lot. He seems rather cynical and cold but he is a man living with memory and guilt, unable to look to the future while his wife is in a coma. Her condition is described as "Locked-In Syndrome", but Dryden is also tied to waiting, remembering, in a situation where he has little hope of a change in the near future.
Apart from Dryden, the setting could be described as the other main character in the novel. There is plenty of imagery of wet and cold and it perhaps is not the most comfortable book to read as late autumn turns to winter. However, like learning more about Dryden, I was drawn into learning about the setting. I have never visited that area but I almost feel as if I have now.
I am not going to describe the mystery plot of this novel in detail, as I wouldn't want to spoil anything for anyone who wants to read it. I will say this book is much weaker as a crime novel, for example in plot development and resolution, than in characterisation and portrayal of the location. I think I will remember Dryden and his Fens long after I forget "whodunit." That works very well for me but it is not a novel for someone who wants a fast paced action story.
The Water Clock is the first in a series of 5 books.
Life must be pretty dull for a reporter if they happen to work for a local newspaper. The one in my area is full of stories about gardeners huge parsnips and youths with hoodies. After weeks of endless weddings and funerals anything out of the ordinary must seem fantastic. What then if a thirty year old body turned up on the roof of the local church? Surely this would be an interesting curiosity, but not a case that could cause you any danger?
Dryden is a journalist who has burnt out after spending too long on Fleet Street. He now works for a local paper on the Fens and looks after his wife who has been in a coma for two years after a car accident. Dryden's sleepy lifestyle is shaken when a car containing a body is found submerged in a remote lake. Is it a coincidence that another body is found a day later, one that has been sitting on top of a church roof for 30 years? Dryden must risk his life, and that of his helpless wife, to uncover the truth.
The Water Clock is a great debut for its author Jim Kelly as it mixes the intensity of the dark American crime thriller with a very English feel. The book is set in the deepest fens and the people and lifestyles are instantly recognisable to anyone who lives in this country. This book is unlike many crime books as Kelly keeps you guessing who did it till the very end. I read a lot of crime fiction and I am usually pretty sure what is going on by half way; this book had me hooked till the very last chapter.
The fact that Dryden is such an interesting character helps. For any crime noir fiction to work you have to have a damaged figure at the centre whose inner demons drive them as much as their environment. Authors such as Michael Connelly and Robert Crais have created characters that are both funny and dark. Kelly has done the same here with Dryden. Dryden has a very dry sense of humour and is not a perfect man. However, he does look after his comatosed wife and when he is involved in a story he will not be put off from finding the truth. You really begin to root for him by the end and this aids in driving the story forwards.
Kelly has also populated the book with a rich number of interesting characters from Drydens co-workers to the suspects. By introducing a number of people, all fully realised with motives, Kelly is able to weave a story where you can not trust anyone. This adds to the tension and helps develop Dryden a man who does not know when to quit. Hints are dropped throughout the story, but the book is well written enough for some of these to be mere red herrings. A special mention must go to Drydens almost silent partner in Humph an enigmatic taxi driver. The relationship between Dryden and Humph is good enough for you to want to read other books with them in.
Although the central story and characters are strong the book does suffer a little bit from a confusing structure at times. Kelly explores the case in the present day but also goes back 30 years at points. This proved slightly confusing to me and actually took me out of the central story. I think that a more generic structure would have worked just as well and would have given me a better chance in uncovering the truth myself. Also what has the book got to do with a water clock? There is a slight reference to one in the text but any other metaphorical meanings are far too subtle for me why not call it murder on the fens?
With so many good suspects and a case that keeps you guessing throughout I can see Kelly becoming one of the best crime writers in the UK. Even the slightly loose structure of the narrative could not detract from the enjoyment I had in reading about a flawed journalist who is just trying to get by. With several other books already out by the author I look forward to reading the continuing adventures of Dryden and Humph.
Author: Jim Kelly
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