Customer Reviews of The Water Clock
This is a smashing debut novel by a writer more associated with the august "Financial Times" newspaper. The protagonist is indeed a newspaperman but this one, Philip Dryden, toils at the other end of his previous London life and now works as a big fish in a tiny pond on the Cambridgeshire Fens. He writes for the local rag, dubiously named "The Crow". With one of the most riveting prologue chapters I've ever read, the book starts us on a frozen journey through a maze of crimes that may or may not be connected. All of the action takes place in an extremely cold week in November, and we know that from the first, so immediately the clock is ticking and Kelly uses that fact to drive the story to increasingly higher levels of tension.
The core of the story revolves around two murders that have taken place more than 30 years apart and are connected to yet another crime that left a young woman horribly disfigured. In pulling at the threads of these stories, Dryden works with the inept and unhappy local detective who has no apparent interest in any of the connections that seem so apparent to Dryden. And, of course, there has to be a romance. This one is tragic. Dryden has his own mystery because he was in a horrible car accident years before and was rescued from drowning in that accident by a mysterious stranger who didn't also rescue Dryden's wife Laura, and she has lain in a coma ever since. So Dryden has his own mystery and his own demons.
This is a small, lonely place on the planet and the cast of available characters is small so you know, almost from the start, that all stories intertwine and that nothing is what it seems. Right up to the end, I was shivering (you get damned cold reading this book) and hoping upon hope that I was wrong about the evil at the core. At the end, it didn't matter. Being wrong didn't keep the book from stirring around in my head for several days more.
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
This novel has the best of every feature a mystery novel can have. It has well drawn characters, a complex, but tightly interwoven plot, witty and intelligent dialogue, and a plausible, but not too obvious conclusion. I most highly recommend this book to a wide audience of readers, not just mystery lovers.
The author has put together a real mystery and one which can
be savored as it is read. The premise isn't Earth-shattering,
but the writer does an exceptional job expanding the persona of
his characters, and those in the forefront really come to life.
The hero is a reporter for a small newspaper in the Fen region
of England, adjacent to the famous old area known as The Wash,
and he often wonders why he left the much better job on Fleet
Street for this very small newspaper. About the only thing he does is write small stories and spend part of every night sitting beside his wife, who is in a coma in the local hospital.
Dryden is so wracked with the guilt of driving the car that plunged into a ditch filled with cold water, which was the cause
of his wife's very sad condition.
But then he gets to the scene of a similar event, and he watches
as a car is pulled from icy water; but events take a sudden turn
when police discovered a mutulated body inside. Identification
is going to take awhile, but before that case can even get moving, another body is discovered. The 2nd body is found at
the top of Ely Cathedral, wedged among battlements, but it is
quite decomposed, and the first estimates are that the body has
been there a very long time. A bit later, they determine the
body was that of a robbery suspect who disappeared in 1966. And
it has been there on that high roof all the time.
As these unexpected events unfold, another bizarre twist developes when it turns out both bodies, the one representing
a very recent murder, and the one over 30 yrs old, are connected.
The reporter lets his natural curiosity take over, and he begins
to pursue the killer himself; partly because he doubts the local
police are working quite as hard as they should, and partly because of personal drive. Plus, if he can uncover some facts
unknown to the police, he can use those facts to barter for a
look at the secret file on his auto accident.
Many complications arise here, and the characters slide in and
out of focus as his investigation continues, and as his work keeps intersecting that of the police. And he seems to be keeping one step ahead of the police, much to their annoyance.
Altogether, this is a real mystery and one that will keep most
readers guessing and pressing forward with their reading as they
try to reach some understanding of all events here.
The publisher says this is this author's first book, and it contains so many details and is so well-thought-out that the
author must have been thinking of this for a very long time.
In addition to the good mystery, this is a must for any mystery-loving Anglophile because there is much use of the English language that is "foreign" to most US readers, and that new
language, plus the considerable detail of the weather, terrain,
and history of the fen country, will be most satisfying. No
editor re-worked the author's language to make it more American.
Many of this cast of characters will stay with the reader quite
a long time. Very highly recommended.
It begins at the end with the reporter, Philip Dryden, standing in the ruins of his childhood home waiting for a killer while the flood waters rise around him. London journalist and first-time novelist Kelly then jumps back a week, introducing Dryden on his way to a watery crime scene in the damp, frozen Cambridgeshire Fens.
He rides in a decrepit taxi driven by the mountainous, mostly silent Humph, kept on retainer by Dryden, who hasn't driven a car since the accident that put his wife, Laura, into a coma two years earlier. Philip was driving. His car was startled off the road into one of the Fens rivers and he remembers little else, except that he was pulled out in time and his wife wasn't. He left his fast-track Fleet Street job and came home to the Fens to become senior reporter for the local weekly and visit his wife's hospital room in the evenings.
The police are winching a car out of the water when Dryden arrives. In the trunk is a body. But when a second body - 30 years dead- turns up during some restoration work on the cathedral roof, Dryden's investigative skills prove more adept than those of the local police. He seizes his chance to trade newspaper resources for the sealed file on his accident. But the killer doesn't plan to sit idly by and let Dryden ferret him out.
Kelly requires diligence from his reader, particularly at the start, as the story unfolds by association rather than chronology. But the author rewards our attention. Flashes of humor and brilliant visuals accompany the brooding insularity of rural society and guarded secrets as Dryden chips away layers of deceit and betrayal.
"A dedicated physical coward of extraordinary range," Dryden knows "with sickening self-knowledge that his bravery was the product of a tremendous desire to show off." He's also tenacious and irreverent and burdened with guilt. A great man to have along on a story, Dyden's first venture should be the beginning of a fine new career for Kelly.