The Riddle of the River

Written by Catherine Shaw
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

1898. Cambridge. In this, the fifth of the Vanessa Weatherburn mysteries, a beautiful young girl is discovered floating in the river Cam. Vanessa doesn’t know where to start. Who is she? And was it suicide or murder? Gradually, facts begin to emerge: the girl was pregnant, she wore an unusual bracelet, and she might possibly have been an actress.

The trail leads Vanessa to explore the theatre world, the late 19th century craze for séances, the Marconi revolution which will lead to the invention of the telegraph—and to one of Cambridge’s most respected families, where all is not what it seems. In her search for the truth, Vanessa nearly forgets that she may be putting herself in danger…

Catherine Shaw, as always, has produced a well-written and intelligent book. She is good at illuminating her chosen period and excellent at getting across that difficult thing, the zeitgeist of the time. I particularly liked the Darwins’ dinner party, inspired by Gwen (Darwin) Raverat’s Period Piece, an account of her late Victorian Cambridge childhood, and one of my favourite books. I enjoyed Gwen’s cameo appearance.

However, I was concerned about the number of visible dollops of research. The tension sagged as Vanessa and her friends discussed the playwright Pinero’s views on society’s hypocrisy with regard to sexual mores, at length. I would have enjoyed Ms Shaw’s pertinent comments on ‘that interesting play The Second Mrs Tanqueray’ in my MA Victorian theatre seminars, but not in a novel. I would say the same about the episode discussing Sir Oliver Lodge’s views on telepathy and communicating with the afterlife, which also held up the action and allowed the tension to drop.

Having said that, this is certainly a good read and, if you enjoy richly-detailed research, this is the book for you.