Water Like a Stone, Deborah Crombie, William Morrow, $24.95.
A new Deborah Crombie novel is a very highly anticipated event - she's right up there with Elizabeth George, Laurie King, and Elizabeth Peters in terms of reader enthusiasm, and with good reason. Her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series has gotten stronger as it goes forward (always nice to see) with a turning point coming with the brilliant Dreaming of the Bones. Since then her novels have all possessed the depth and breadth of her fellow American writing in Britain, Elizabeth George. Like George, the setting (to these American eyes) seems perfection itself, with nothing giving away to the reader that the author isn't herself British. Unlike George, Crombie is a slightly softer writer, who has allowed her characters to develop and even attain a mature and believable happiness. In this outing, Duncan and Gemma, who has lost a baby in the last book, are visiting Duncan's parents for Christmas, a visit which is filling Gemma with some degree of dread.
Their arrival is much anticipated by Duncan's parents who are looking forward to meeting Duncan's son, Kit, a grandson unknown to them until only recently (read Dreaming of the Bones to find out why). In any case, the family cobbled together of Duncan and Kit and Gemma and her son, Toby, is a strong unit that needs to be to withstand the circumstances Duncan's family finds itself in over Christmas. Duncan's sister, Juliet, is a building contractor - as she's finishing up some work on a pre Christmas job, she uncovers the skeleton of an infant. Not only that, but when she finally gets home - after greeting her brother at the crime scene - her husband, Caspar, attacks her verbally in the hearing of the whole extended family, including their own children. Reeling from her husband's viciousness, Juliet is in no mood to accept the help of her older brother, but Duncan and Gemma are of course drawn into the case, especially after Duncan discovers that the Superintendent in charge is an old school mate, Ronnie Babcock.
When someone else turns up dead the geographical links are too much for Gemma, who does some exploring on her own; meanwhile the teenage Kit and his teenage cousin, Lally, Juliet's daughter, are doing some dangerous explorations themselves. Crombie is an absolute expert at the behavioral nuances between the characters she is writing about, and unlike Elizabeth George, she often seems to feel actual affection for them. George may feel affection for her characters but she is a ruthless writer - if there needs to be a dead body, there will be, no matter who it might turn out to be. Crombie is softer than George in the sense that you feel there are some people she actually can't bear to kill off, though one of the deaths in the book is both shocking and heartbreaking.
One of the more charming aspects of the book is Crombie's inclusion of the narrowboat culture - long, seven foot wide boats that used to house families who moved along Britain's extensive canal systems. Narrowboats are now mostly used for vacationers (google them to have a look, they're beautiful) and it's a vivid addition to the novel that really makes it memorable. I thought the narrative as a whole was very well paced and the different aspects of the story were very well knit together, but there was one jarring note that, when I finished the book, I wasn't sure belonged, and that's the narrative supplied inside the killer's head. However, it's a fairly minor quibble to what is a very fine and enjoyable novel, a worthy addition to one of the strongest series in mystery fiction.
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