The Man from the River (G.D.H. and Margaret Cole)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It is always a pleasure to discover that a book of which one has fond memories from five years ago is as good (if not better) as one remembers it. This has all the right ingredients of its period: a small Essex village setting, with solicitors, stockbrokers (one found in the river) and Bright Young Things; plenty of wit and style — an entertaining, cheerfully unfacetious read; and a leisurely summer holiday mood, which extends even to the great Wilson (poor man — every time he tries to “get away from it all,” he only succeeds in stumbling upon a corpse!). The mechanics of the murder are sound, as befits an adaptation — and even improvement — upon the rope trick employed in Chesterton’s “Miracle of Moon Crescent”. Particularly good is that the crime could have been seen; even better is the way in which the would-be blackmailer defeats his own schemes.

Blurb (UK)

Michael Prendergast, M.D., had persuaded Superintendent Wilson, the “big noise” at Scotland Yard, to take a few days well-earned holiday with him in the sleepy Essex village of Steeple Tollesbury.  But before ever Wilson arrived, the body of a man, apparently drowned, was washed up in the river.  His interest roused by the suspicious behaviour of the local doctor, Michael discovers that the man was not drowned accidentally, but deliberately murdered.  But who murdered him?  His business partner, who had been making hay with the funds?  The wife who disliked him?  Her lover from China?  The suspicious doctor?  Or a strange and whimsical old solicitor whose behaviour greatly troubles both Michael and his friend?  Even these questions do not exhaust the list of possible suspects.  It is safe to say that not one in a hundred readers will ever guess the true explanation of how the crime was committed, or lay his finger on the criminals, in spite of all the array of characters offered to his choice.

Blurb (US)

Coles - The Man from the River US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

These are real flesh-and-blood people who move through The Man from the River.  To the quiet old town of Steeple-Tollesbury Superintendent Wilson of Scotland Yard comes to spend a carefree vacation; but on the very day of Wilson’s arrival, the recovery of a floating body from the Toll plunges the whole town into the midst of a double mystery.

Was it suicide, or was it murder?  Why had the body not been seen before – since it had obviously been in the water four or five days.  If it was murder, was poor Meston killed because of misappropriated funds, or was he murdered by one of his wife’s lovers?  Did the gruff town doctor, Kershaw, play a part in the tragedy?  The countless number of possible motives and solutions leaves one fairly breathless.

Superintendent Wilson quietly and skilfully untangles the threads, and the disclosure of the mystery comes as a surprise to the reader, though it is a surprise deftly prepared for, and entirely within reason.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (9th August 1928): Staying in a little Essex town, Dr. Michael Prendergast saw a dead body fished out of the river and satisfied himself that the man had been strangled by hanging, though the local chief constable, a retired military gentleman with an amiable disposition to let sleeping dogs lie, would gladly have accepted the view that death was due to accidental or suicidal drowning.  Electing, not very unwillingly, to take a busman’s holiday, the doctor’s friend, Superintendent Wilson, of Scotland Yard, who had come to spend a few days with him, soon discovered a tangled skein of possible motives for the crime, ranging from embezzlement to the allurements of the victim’s wife, a “predatory” lady who was the cynosure of all neighbouring male eyes; and a corresponding array of plausible suspects is presented for the reader’s choice.  The detective, whose caution in drawing conclusions forms a good foil to his friend’s impetuosity, makes an initial mistake in forgetting that a dead body usually floats, and thus was led astray in his investigation, in the course of which a garrulous old solicitor, who possibly knew more than he told, kept dogging him like a “revolting Greek chorus”.  The method by which the crime was committed is ingenious and original, but in its practical details makes some demands on credulity.

Spectator (R.A.T., 30th June 1928, 170w): The folk concerned in this narrative, including the superintendent, are alive and actively amusing or repellent as they rarely are in detective fiction.  The pattern of the crime is admirably worked out in the end: this is a spirited and exciting story from the first page to the last.

Nation and Ath (Francis Birrell, 14th July 1928, 100w): The mystery is cleverly concealed, and the story adequately, if not overwhelmingly, exciting.

New Statesman (8th September 1928, 150w): The solution is extremely ingenious; and if some of the practical details seem more than a little difficult, the logic of the murder is quite satisfactory.