Debuts are often described as "promising", their writers as "someone to watch". However, every year there are one or two that extend beyond that. They are not merely promising, they are the real achieved thing, immediate potential fulfilled, and they are not just someone to watch, they are someone to go and read, now. The Water Clock is just such a book, Jim Kelly one of those writers. In the best traditions of crime writing, Kelly is a journalist, as is his protagonist Phillip Dryden, a man still taunted by the grief of a car accident two years ago which left his wife Laura in a permanent coma. She exists in a nearby hospital, where he visits her every day.
One cold evening in the watery Cambridgeshire Fens, children skating on the ice spot something beneath, and hours later a car is winched, gushing chilled water, out of the frozen marshes. Inside, encased in a block of ice, is a mutilated body. The following day, after workmen ascend the Cathedral roof to carry out maintenance work that has not been required for decades, a decaying corpse is found grotesquely riding a stone gargoyle. On a part of the roof entirely hidden from view, it has been there for at least 30 years.
When forensic evidence links the two killings and a horrific crime committed in 1966, Dryden knows he's onto a great story. But, chasing it will draw him into a cloudy investigation of the past, as well as to some disturbing revelations about that night two years ago which changed his life forever, before taking him finally to an eerie house in the middle of the flooding Fen landscape.
This is not only one of the best debuts of the year, but possibly one of the best novels, too. It boasts a disturbing plot, and is brilliantly told in a wonderfully individual voice with its easy journalistic eye for telling details of character and story. Dryden is a likeable protagonist - always important - and though he doesn't quite stun the reader with amazement as Rebus, Scarpetta or Bosch may, he does still occasionally sparkle with a compelling and unfathomable complexity hidden behind a rather lonely, laid-back and slightly cynical veneer. He is certainly great company.
The marshy expanses of the Fen landscape are described absolutely brilliantly. Indeed, this almost jaw-dropping evocation of place and atmosphere is quite remarkable, The Fens become dark, ominous, malevolent; a brilliant backdrop to the story. Jim Kelly has done in one book for Norfolk what Reginald Hill is still doing for Yorkshire after 19.
There's a wonderful sly humour to the writing too. A humour that is witty, sharp, occasionally satirical, it underpins the narrative in places and makes the whole thing shine. Humphrey "Humph" Holt, the overweight cab driver who, effectively, acts as Dryden's constant chauffer, whose meter always reads £2.95 and whose taxi cassette-deck is perpetually playing foreign-language learning tapes is an absolutely brilliant comic creation!
The Water Clock, the cover of which boasts impressive blurbs from Colin Dexter, Val McDermid and even the wonderful Donna Leon, is a very impressive debut. I don't want to hype it up too much - it tends to lead to disappointment - but it's an atmospheric, dark and watery book well worth your time and cash