The Riddle of the River by Catherine Shaw is the fourth book featuring Mrs Vanessa Weatherburn. It’s the first one I’ve read so it took me a little while to work out her background. Set in Cambridge in 1898 Vanessa used to be a school mistress until she married Arthur. Now with two children (twins) she acts as a private investigator.
Vanessa is enlisted by her friend, journalist Patrick O’Sullivan to investigate the death of a young woman found floating, reminding her of Ophelia, in the River Cam:
The grass and flowers, all the little life that flourishes on the edge of a stream, formed a frame for the figure of the floating girl. She lay face down in the water, caught in the rushes near the edge, her hair fanning out like algae, and her white dress forming a poetic, ghostly shape as the lines of those parts of it which floated under the water were deformed into waves. The back of her head emerged from the stream, and the wet hair floated, echoing the ripples of the Cam itself.
Her task is to identify the girl and discover why would anyone want to murder her. Her friend’s husband, Ernest Dixon leads her to wonder whether the unidentified body could be that of the lovely young actress named Ivy Elliot he saw playing the part of Ophelia in the Young Shakespeare Company on the outskirts of London. In the production she actually floated away down a stream, out of sight. Ernest who has fallen in love with Ivy is worried about her disappearance. Just who was Ivy and how is she connected with the elderly and unpleasant Geoffrey Archer and his son Julian?
Vanessa, acting undercover travels by train to Holyhead where she embarks on the Royal Mail Steamer crossing to Dublin and then on to Kingston for the Regatta and there discovers a brilliant invention that revolutionised communication and so solves the “riddle of the river”. This is a well constructed book with plenty of complications that kept me guessing, a strong sense of location and well drawn and believable characters, but most of all I loved the way it evokes the Victorian era.
It was no surprise to read that the author is an academic and a mathematician as the novel includes many scientific details which combined with accounts of contacting the dead through the ether, the British Psychial Society, the scientific study of seances in the Victorian era, references to Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin, make this a fascinating book.
The first three books featuring Vanessa are The Three-Body Problem, Flowers Stained with Moonlight, and The Library Paradox, which I hope to read soon.