Jim Kelly has been attracting good reviews for his second crime novel, The Fire Baby, so I thought I would begin by reading his first, The Water Clock. And an excellent book it is too. The cover carries a recommendation from Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse series), and often these don’t mean much, but in this case Dexter doesn’t even share the same publisher, so I guess he must mean it.
Kelly’s detective is a local newspaper reporter, and the background seems convincing to me. The plot need not detain us, but you will need to know that we are spared the all too common serial killer and the inner-city hard-boiled stuff. Instead we have a crime novel set in the Fen country of East Anglia. And a bare, bleak, cold, wet landscape it is too. I once knew it well, and Kelly’s writing conveys its flavour rather well. ‘A multicultural event in the Fens,’ says Kelly, ‘was a phone call from London.’ It is an in-bred and frightening part of the world at times, the people not taking kindly to strangers.
In short, if you care for English crime fiction, The Water Clock is a literate and well constructed example.
Should you be interested in knowing a bit more about the Fens, the best book that I know of is still A History of the Fens by J. Wentworth-Day – Harrap, 1954. Long since out of print, of course, but available secondhand. Wentworth-Day was an eccentric character, but he certainly knew his subject. I once heard him lecture; it must be fifty years ago, at least. There is a reference on the internet which says that his history is written from the landowner and squire angle, giving details of what to shoot and fish. Well, yes, it is, but it’s none the worse for that. The book includes lots of photographs which were well printed at the time and show hardly a trace of deterioration today.
Another excellent book which you can find secondhand (try Abebooks) is Iris Wedgwood’s Fenland Rivers. This was first published by Rich and Cowan in 1936; it was also published in the US by Morrow, and was reprinted in England in the early fifties. This has some pleasing paintings by Henry Rushbury. Wedgwood includes an eye-witness account of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, which took place on the banks of the Nene, at Fotheringay. All that remains of Fotheringay Castle now is a mound. I once attended a scout camp which pitched its tents on the top of it.
There is a more recent book by David Phillips, The River Nene (Past and Present, 1997). This, as its title demonstrates, concentrates on just one of the Fenland rivers, giving a splendid description of its features, towns, and wildlife, from source to sea.