Saturday, July 08, 2006

I am even more full of admiration for Jim Kelly's second mystery about British journalist Philip Dryden than I was for his impressive debut, The Water Clock.

Kelly could have easily coasted on the qualities that made his first book so distinctive: the landscape (the mysterious oozing fens surrounding the old East Anglia cathedral town of Ely, where he and Dryden live); the fascinating secondary characters (an about-to- retire cop who trades crime tips for birdwatching news, a minicab driver almost as large as his vehicle, which has become Dryden's sole means of transport); the absolute sadness of Dryden's private life, as his much-beloved wife, Laura, remains hospitalized in a coma after a car accident. Instead, Kelly keeps those ingredients and pushes the envelope they came in. Laura has amazingly begun to make progress, communicating (heartbreakingly slowly and painfully) by pressing Dryden's hand through the alphabet, stopping at letters that seem to make words. She is trying to tell him about a confession she heard from someone who thought she was completely comatose, concerning a murder Dryden is covering for his local newspaper, the Crow. Maggie Beck, the woman in the other bed in Laura's hospital room, is the lone survivor of a fiery crash of a U.S. Air Force bomber that plowed into her farm after a dust cloud ripped apart its jet engines in 1977. The fire baby of the book's title is Maggie's love child, burned to death in the disaster. But now Maggie, dying of cancer, is stirring the ashes of that painful past and seems ready to disclose some important information.You may never choose to visit the fens--especially in the summer, which sounds particularly toxic--but the area will come alive from the very first page because of Kelly's extraordinary art and imagination.