Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson, like William Gibson, is an artiste of the slightly funny deal. They run all through Cold Water, and trying to figure out just who is running a caper on whom is one of the pleasures of the novel. Carey Tews, the novel’s main protagonist, is a Texan who’s been in Europe for decades as a journalist and also one of the Coureurs des Bois. The Coureurs are a shadowy network of people who are adept at moving things, or people, across Europe without bothering with pesky things like fixed identities or border regulations, or really any regulations at all. Between her two professions, Carey has become a connoisseur of the slightly funny deal.

Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson

Which is why she nearly walks away from the proposition that is offered to her in the municipal palm house in Gliwice, Poland. For reasons that are (mostly) explained over the course of Cold Water, she’s no longer an active Coureur. Yet a man who is one of the network’s central nodes has sent her an urgent message that draws her from her home in Catalunya to Gliwice in southwest Poland.

“Are you offering me my job back?” she asked.
“Oh, no,” he said. “No, I wouldn’t dream of being so insulting, unless you wanted it back; you seem to be doing very well on your own. No, we’d like to engage you as a consultant. How do your people put it? A visiting fireman.”
“Why me? Is everyone else busy or something?”
“We think you have a certain … perspective which would be useful.” (pp. 12–13)

The person making the offer, Kaunus, (“That’s a place, not a name,” [said Carey]. He heaved a sigh. “Yes,” he said wearily.) shows her a picture.

She looked down at the photograph … In it, a young man and woman were leaning together into the shot, arms around each other’s shoulders. They were laughing. In the background was a wall of bodies, the occasional hand gripping a beer glass. In the foreground was a table almost entirely covered in empty bottles and glasses and plates. The look on the woman’s face broke Carey’s heart. She looked so young and trusting and happy. The man was blond and handsome and she had never quite got over the suspicion that he looked like the Devil.
“What’s he got himself mixed up in now?” she asked.
“We were rather hoping you’d agree to find out for us,” he said. “On the face of it, he mostly seems to have got himself dead.” (pp. 13–14)

The devilishly handsome man in the photo was Maksim, one of Carey’s mentors within the Coureurs, a friend, and then an off and on lover for many years. Their parting, Hutchinson eventually reveals, had been harsh, and final, but not yet fatal. What had he been doing in Gliwice? How had it gotten him killed? That’s what Kaunas wants Carey to find out. She’s puzzled — well, actually somewhere between incredulous and incensed — that the Coureurs do not know. The thick envelope full of large-denomination Swiss banknotes is not enough to entice her into the job of finding out, but she takes it on all the same. Part of Cold Water is Carey finding out how much of a hold Maksim still has on her, even, apparently, from beyond the grave. Or beyond the urn at any rate. The car accident that ended Maksim’s life left his body in an unfortunate condition, and since neither will nor next of kin could be found, the municipality had the body cremated.

After about 40 pages with Carey, Hutchinson introduces two additional point-of-view characters, both Estonian, both younger women. Krista is an up and coming officer in the Tallinn police. Lenna is a journalist with a drinking problem. Krista’s world will be upended by accusations against her late father, who had been on the Tallinn force for many decades. Lenna’s will be upended by getting fired from the newspaper, and what job she takes afterward to keep the rent paid. Their stories are interesting in themselves, but it is not clear for a long time how they relate to what Carey is doing in Poland and, eventually, elsewhere, when she starts pulling on the threads that she find in Gliwice.

Uncertainty is a big part of the atmosphere of Cold Water. The book is more spy novel than mystery, and it is all set within the Fractured Europe setting that Hutchinson has built up over four previous novels. Carey’s career, as gradually revealed in flashbacks, covers more than the time span of those books. She arrived not long after the pandemic flu that caused Europe to start fracturing, and Cold Water takes place at a time when some of the revelations in the series, particularly about the Community, are reasonably common knowledge. She may also have been part of the action in Europe in Winter because she is still bitter about an operation in Hungary that went all pear-shaped; I don’t recall the details of that book well enough to say for sure.

The puzzle of Maksim’s death just seems to lead to more puzzles. He angered the local Coureurs in Gliwice enough that they won’t work with Carey, even though the object of their ire is dead. Maksim’s right-hand man Yegor was in town at least through Maksim’s funeral; is he still there? Some of the people tailing Carey and the team she quickly assembles (who are great characters in themselves!) are far more skilled than either local gangs or local Coureurs. Who are they? One of the names in the condolence book at the crematorium is a major character from the Fractured Europe series. Carey has no knowledge of him, but readers of Hutchinson’s other books will surely raise an eyebrow and wonder: what is he doing here? Krista and Lenna are chasing their own mysteries, but how do they relate to Carey’s story?

It’s one thing to hint and feint, implying and shadowboxing, but a book like Cold Water stands or falls on how well everything comes together at the end. Readers of Hutchinson’s other works will know not to expect that absolutely everything will be worked out and resolved; indeed for some characters the whole point may be that some things are not resolved, or are irresolvable. I think Cold Water succeeds in balancing explanation and resolution against lingering uncertainty. Carey discovers what was happening in Gliwice, and some of what that means as part of a bigger picture. She gets a happier ending than I might have expected, though looking at it from another angle, she may have just maneuvered from cold water to very deep water, and some of the powers of the deep may be displeased. The book stands on its own, though I found it a good companion to the other Fracture Europe novels. Likewise, it’s complete in itself, though I could well imagine a follow-up.

By the by, Hutchinson has again looked across the whole map of Europe and chosen small and odd locations just down the road from my life. Most of the action in Cold Water takes place in Gliwice; for a time late in the 20th century I was a regular visitor to Katowice, about 30km to the east. It’s extremely likely that I have taken intercity buses through Gliwice. Texel is at the western end of the Frisian islands that are shared between Germany and The Netherlands. In Hutchinson’s future, the islands are connected by bridges and causeways, a major EU project that was completed not long before Europe began fracturing. In 2021, I took my summer vacation on Norderney, one of the German islands in the chain. Carey undoubtedly sped along routes that I had bicycled on those sunny days. Then there’s Estonia, where Hutchinson’s books have gone before, as have I. Most recently, I spent two weeks there in 2022, visiting both its northwesternmost major island, Hiiumaa, and the lands of an Estonian minority people, the Seto, in the country’s southeastern corner. For a change, the characters in Cold Water went to a part of Estonia that I haven’t visited — the northern coast — but most of the real places mentioned in Tallinn I could picture from personal experience. Europe’s a big(-ish) place, and yet Hutchinson’s characters keep winding up in out-of-the-way corners of the continent that I just happen to be acquainted with. Fortunately, my visits are much less eventful than theirs.

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