RogerBW's Blog

The Riddle of the River, Catherine Shaw 27 November 2017

2007 historical mystery, fourth of Shaw's series. In 1898, Vanessa Weatherburn investigates a young woman whose body was found floating in the Cam.

This is a very oddly disjointed book. The investigation leads, with only minor coincidence, to the identity of the victim, but Vanessa's theories always run well in advance of her data, she publicly accuses the wrong people, and generally she does a lousy job of investigation. What I think was meant to be the climactic puzzle – how could information have got from person A to person B at a particular time, given that they have no telephones – might have been more of a mystery if the inter-chapter vignettes hadn't been talking about the childhood experiments of a boy named Guglielmo.

Other threads go nowhere. Vanessa enlists an assistant, who vanishes as soon as she's delivered a bit of information. She digs into the parlousness of theatrical life, then goes away again and all the setup is ignored. She goes to a séance, but does not become either a believer or a debunker; she just doesn't seem terribly interested. I'm particularly interested to note that Arthur Conan Doyle appears here (and is rebuked by the "spirit" for having killed off Sherlock Holmes), because it was explicitly established in the first book that in this literary continuity Sherlock Holmes is a real person

The historical research is decent, and since the author is American she can be forgiven for the unfortunate coincidence of having a character called Geoffrey Archer living in Grantchester. The Author's Message, which seems to be becoming obligatory in these books, is about the status of women and especially of prostitutes. That said, I find Vanessa's freedom to act – even with an entirely understanding husband – somewhat implausible. I'm only an amateur historian of the period but I get the impression that most of the men – and women – she talks to would simply have refused to take her seriously.

Followed by Fatal Inheritance, but after two major disappointments in a row in this series I have no plans to read more.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:22pm on 28 November 2017

    We still get bodies in the Cam. Not often mind you, which is just as well really.

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