The previous Duncan Kincaid/ Gemma James installment, IN A DARK HOUSE, masterfully knitted together four plot skeins and kept readers on the edge of their seats. Just released WATER LIKE A STONE, # 11 in the series, reverts to a construction more like that of NOW MAY YOU WEEP, the ninth book which revolved around friends and family rather than around cases assigned to the copper couple. As a result, WATER LIKE A STONE is a less complex procedural -- although it is by no means simple -- as it concentrates on the more personal lives of the family.
This time, the blended Kincaid/James family motors to the Barbury home of Duncan's parents to spend the Christmas holidays. As they arrive on Christmas Eve, Duncan's sister, whose troubled, splintering family lives in neighboring Nantwich discovers an infant's desiccated remains in a barn she and her construction crew are renovating. So, in the midst of family introductions and familiarization, Duncan reconnects with a childhood friend who is now the chief inspector in charge of this investigation and watches a bit enviously from the sidelines as the local police work the case.
Duncan and his son, Kit, also meet a narrowboat owner named Annie, whom they both find intriguing. She, a retired social worker, offers to take them for a boat ride if they return while she is moored nearby. We get to know her fairly intimately, just as we do others in the story. Annie is the "elum" (helm), if you will, of the book: all the branches of the story steer through her.
The younger set plays a significant role in WATER LIKE A STONE. Kit's teenage cousin, Lally, is a wild girl whose destructive behavior worsens due to the turmoil between her parents. Kit's desire to help her lands him in mortal peril at the tale's climax. Of all the plot threads in the novel, this one appeals to this reader the least. Too many mysteries in books, movies, and television, resort to plots about out-of-control young people these days. But, thankfully, Crombie does not portray all the teenagers as witless or without conscience.
WATER LIKE A STONE shines more for its human relationship building -- especially within the sensitive Kincaid clan -- than for crime suspense. Reading about the Christmas traditions of the family, about the tentative and careful ways most of them pick to acquaint themselves for the first time, or again, is a joy. After all, in a series like this, getting a deeper intuition into the make-up of the lead characters and those they love and cherish fuels most readers. The reality that the identity of the primary perp can be guessed fairly early in the game doesn't notably cripple the novel's enjoyment factor; and happily *all* the secrets of the book can't be teased out with any certainty before they are revealed by the author.
One oddity in the text could be changed in the paperback edition: the investigating chief inspector refers to himself as "Detective Superintendent" on page 224. Nothing in the plot supports this statement: he hasn't been promoted mid-book. It could be considered a wishful slip of the tongue because Duncan is a superintendent, but it is most likely merely a minor error that wasn't caught by editing.
Sincere thanks to Laura Hartman Maestro, the artist who furnished the beautiful and often referenced illustrated maps on the book's end papers. This finely rendered touch truly enhances the experience of reading WATER LIKE A STONE.
The structural greatness of IN A DARK HOUSE really couldn't be topped, so Crombie's wise shift to a more personal tale in WATER LIKE A STONE convincingly satisfies and pleases!
Highly recommended, with the caveat that, were there the choice, I would actually rate this book four and a half enthusiastic stars rather than a full five.