The Devil and the River by RJ Ellory

the devil and the riverLies and corruption…

😐 😐 😐

A young girl disappeared from the small town of Whytesburg, Mississippi, 20 years ago – a runaway, or so it was thought. But now, in 1974, a fierce storm has disturbed the mud at the river and Nancy’s perfectly preserved body has risen to the surface. Sheriff John Gaines is a man who has seen a lot of horrors in his life, mostly during his tour in Vietnam, but he’s shocked to see that the girl’s body has been horribly mutilated. Still fighting the demons of his own war memories, Gaines must now try to find a way to the truth through a labyrinth of lies and corruption. The discovery of Nancy’s body seems to have brought the devil into Whytesburg and more deaths are on the way…

There’s a good story at the heart of this novel and Ellory’s writing is always skilful enough to hold the readers attention. But there are some real problems with this book. It reads at times like a draft rather than a finished novel. For most of the first half we are constantly dragged back to Gaines’ war experiences which, while relevant in explaining his character, don’t move the plot forward at all and are overlong and repetitive. Continuity errors abound – for example, at one point Gaines tells retired attorney Nate Ross about a possible source of information, clearly forgetting that it was Nate who gave him this information four chapters earlier. At another point, a character tells Gaines she has just found out something that she, the same character, had already told him several chapters earlier. These are just a couple of examples of what was a recurring problem throughout the book.

And lazy devices for building tension – Gaines is stunned three-quarters of the way through to discover the reason for the mutilation of Nancy’s body. However, he had the man who did it in custody much earlier in the book and, despite knowing and discussing with him the fact that he did it, it never occurred to Gaines to ask him why – clearly so that we could have the big revelation at a later point; though the reason had seemed pretty obvious from fairly early on anyway. Gaines’ method of detection, in fact, seems to be to decide that someone did it and then later, for no particular reason, change his mind and decide that no, actually it was someone else. This goes on throughout until, pretty much by coincidence, he apparently fastens on the right perpetrator at the end – an end that is somewhat anti-climactic, I fear.

RJ Ellory (
RJ Ellory

I thought Ellory’s last book, A Dark and Broken Heart, was the best thriller of 2012 and this was one of the books I was most eager to read this year. So I’m afraid this has to count as one of the biggest disappointments of 2013. That doesn’t mean it’s the worst book I’ve read this year – far from it. Despite the plotting problems, Ellory’s writing and strong characterisation make this a very readable story. But the sloppiness of the plotting combined with the frequent repetitiveness prevent this from developing anything like the darkness, depth or tension of some of his previous books.

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15 thoughts on “The Devil and the River by RJ Ellory

  1. I do agree with you about Ellory’s writing style. Even at his weakest he’s better than some other people’s best. The story does have an interesting premise, too. Shame there were a few things that ‘got’ you about this, but I’ll probably still want to read it.


    • I think it’s worth reading certainly, but it’s not close to Ellory at his best (in my opinion, of course). It feels as if it’s been rushed into print before being properly revised or something.


  2. HIya, I’m a big fan of R J Ellory so I was interested to read your review on this one. Great review, am looking forward to reading it and some point and sharing x


  3. Thanks for this review.. I am currently reading A Dark and Broken Heart, and I must admit I can’t put it down… Ellory is by far the cleverest Author I have followed..I will read The Devil and the River next, and then find all of his books I have missed out on. I found A Quiet Belief in Angels brilliant..

    Wyn Johnson


    • Thanks for commenting Wyn! I love both of those books too, particularly A Dark and Broken Heart which I thought was wonderful. This one is by no means bad – I just didn’t think it reached the same standards as the previous ones of his that I’ve read, mainly because it didn’t seem as tautly plotted. However, these things are so much a matter of personal taste…I really hope you enjoy it. 🙂


    • I went off him myself when I heard what he’d been doing with Amazon reviews. But when he’s on form, he does write good books! I haven’t decided whether to stick with him in the future…


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