Deborah Crombie's "Water Like a Stone" is set during Christmas season in Nantwich, England. Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his partner, Detective Inspector Gemma James of the Metropolitan Police, along with their children, thirteen-year-old Kit and five-year-old Toby, are visiting Duncan's parents for the holidays. Duncan's sister, Juliet Newcombe, is having serious marital problems and her unhappy adolescent daughter, Lally, is going through a rebellious phase. When Juliet finds the mummified body of a baby in an old barn that she is renovating, she calls Duncan. Although he is far out of his jurisdiction, Duncan lends a hand to his old friend, Chief Inspector Ronnie Babcock, and Gemma also makes a vital contribution to the case. Later, Duncan's son finds the body of a murder victim, and the police attempt to track down the killer before he strikes again.
"Water Like a Stone" is a satisfying balance of family drama, murder mystery, and atmospheric fiction. Although she was born and educated in Texas, Crombie's vivid description of Nantwich's historic buildings and waterways and her skillful use of British vernacular will convince uninitiated readers that the author is a native of the British Isles. There is an intriguing subplot about a group of people who live on narrowboats: Annie Lebow, a disenchanted former social worker, has chosen an isolated life on her expensive and beautifully outfitted craft, while Gabriel Wain, a poor working man, struggles to make ends meet while he cares for his terminally ill wife. Wain is bitter because of the many unpleasant encounters he has had with insensitive bureaucrats and medical professionals. Annie and Gabriel have met in the past, and fate once again brings them together.
Crombie explores the nuances of interpersonal relationships brilliantly. Duncan and Gemma love one another but they still must deal with some unresolved issues. Duncan's son, Kit, is behaving oddly and his school performance has suddenly declined, much to his father's consternation. Juliet Newcombe despises her arrogant husband, Caspar; he treats her with contempt and is turning their children against her. In contrast, Duncan's loving parents, Hugh and Rosemary Kincaid, can practically finish one another's sentences after being happily married for many years. Caspar's slimy partner, Piers Dutton, indulges his troubled fourteen-year-old son, Leo, who is a born troublemaker. Most of the people in this novel, whatever their age and marital status, struggle with feelings of loneliness, fear, and uncertainty. The author skillfully digs into each individual's psyche; she shows how villainy and virtue take root as a result of genetics, upbringing, and one's unique personal history. The book's sole flaw is an ending that is a bit too neat and predictable. Still, "Water Like a Stone" is another fast-paced, engrossing, and suspenseful installment in the superior Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series.