Coffin on the Water (Gwendoline Butler)

By Gwendoline Butler

First published: UK, Collins, 1986; USA, Minotaur

4 stars

I’ve meant to read Gwendoline Butler for a long time.

“Her inventiveness never seems to flag; and the singular atmosphere of her books, compounded of jauntiness and menace, remains undiminished,” critic Patricia Craig wrote in the TLS.

Craig was a Gladys Mitchell enthusiast, and another review (on the old Tangled Web site?) 20 years ago compared Butler’s outré, darkly imaginative mysteries to Gladys Mitchell.

Coffin on the Water is apparently Butler’s first book to feature her series policeman John Coffin after a gap of 12 years. It’s also the earliest chronologically of Coffin’s cases.

Young Detective Constable Coffin is stationed in Greenwich in 1946.  Ex-actress Rachel Esthart has become a recluse after the death of her son; rumour accuses her of killing the child, while she believes he is not dead, and will return.  The mutilated bodies of young women float up the river – attached to each one, a card: A present for my mother…

The HarperCollins reprint (available on Kindle) calls the book “a gripping crime novel from one of the most universally praised English mystery writers, perfect for fans of Agatha Christie”.

Mitchell or Allingham would be better comparisons.  The mystery is rather lightweight, and the solution isn’t, I think, meant to be a surprise.  Butler hints by Coffin’s reactions what he suspects and fears, so it’s clear from early on that X is probably one of two people.

Where Butler excels is atmosphere.  Like her elders, she’s a generous writer, good at vivid descriptions of unusual people (grande dames, landladies, young stars, truant schoolboys), and at describing the seedy East End, with its theatre, Italian restaurants, docks, and black markets.  (Think of Sunset over Soho, The Rising of the Moon, or Coroner’s Pidgin.)

Butler resurrects post-war London in detail.  Her father was a Thames waterman and lighterman, so she knows the river well.  She also taught history at Oxford (and married the professor of medieval history at St Andrew’s), so brings a scholar’s eye to comment on the period.  The crimes, she suggests, are the result of the war, which “had opened minds to strangeness and wildness in the world”.

I’ve acquired a baker’s dozen of her works, and look forward to reading more of her stories. Any opinions on her work, O reader?


‘John Coffin’s baptismal case on demob . . . dispenses a thick gnomic atmosphere of obsession and doom.’ Christopher Wordsworth, Observer
‘Bodies in the river, anonymous letters, eccentric characters with stage and dockland associations, lots of local colour and contemporary detail help end the densely packed plot. It’s splendid stuff.’ F.E. Pardoe, Birmingham Post
‘Interesting and original characters are depicted against an impressionistic, atmospheric background of late 1940s London.’ T.J. Binyon, The Times Literary Supplement
‘Combines a credible quest for a killer with a memorable word picture of the way in which a community has had its attitudes to life and death shaped by the horrors of war.’ Bolton Evening News
‘Delightful to have a new book from Gwendoline Butler about Coffin, her South London detective.’ Marghanita Laski; Listener

Kirkus (21 February 1989):

Butler (Albion Walk, 1982, etc.) sets her latest in postwar London of 1946, sharply evoking the bombed, still-rationed city of the period and introducing detective-constable John Coffin – eager to make a career with Scotland Yard and now assigned to the Greenwich district with fellow rookie Alec Rowley, under Inspector Tom Banbury.  Both Coffin and Rowley are attracted to Stella Pinero, a promising actress who has just joined the Theatre Royal repertory company, run by old pros Joan and Albie Delaney – who send Stella to live in Angel House, owned by Rachel Esthart, one-time theater great, now a semi-recluse in the wake of long-ago personal tragedy.  Then, when the butchered body of young teacher Lorna Beezley is pulled from the river, there seems to be a connection to Rachel – but when two more similarly mutilated victims appear over the weeks, Coffin begins to have doubts.  So, kept on the investigation’s far edge by Banbury and other superiors, Coffin sleuths on his own, pondering the significance of black-market shoes; his conversations with the river men; leads provided by nosy, precocious schoolboy Paul Shanks; and a spill of wine in the restaurant run by ex-fellow soldier Vic Padovani.  Tension builds slowly but firmly in a cleverly plotted, carefully crafted story that sometimes meanders in a way that seems artless but isn’t.  Solid fare for fans of the leisurely British traditional.


Publisher’s Weekly (February 1989):

British writer Butler has crafted a grim tale that unsuccessfully blends murder with social commentary.  In 1946, newly promoted detective-constable John Coffin arrives in Greenwich to take up his post.  Soon after, the body of a young woman floats down the Thames to South London.  It quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary murder: the victim has been strangled, stabbed and mutilated.  Attached to the body is a note reading “Present for my mother,”’ a reference to former actress Rachel Esthart, whose son drowned under mysterious circumstances 17 years previously, and who has just received a postcard promising an imminent gift from the boy, whose death she has never acknowledged.  Then two other bodies are found in the river, murdered in the same brutal way.  There is no shortage of suspects, among them: a famous actor who was in love with Rachel; the co-owner of the Theatre Royal; the theater’s stage manager; and an ex-army mate of Coffin’s who is a black marketeer.  Coffin’s investigation of the murders is complicated by a missing-child case and his own personal search for an unknown sibling.  While interesting for its meticulously detailed picture of bleak post-World War II England, the novel’s appeal is severely limited by an intrusive, off-putting narrative voice. (Feb.)

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