The House by the River by A.P. Herbert

Murder and waffle…

🙂 🙂 😐

Fashionable poet Stephen Byrne lives with his wife in Hammerton Close, in a lovely house overlooking his beloved Thames. When he’s not poeting, he’s to be found out on the river, paddling his rowing boat over to the island opposite the house, or going further afield in his motor boat. Often he’s accompanied by his best friend, John Egerton. So when Stephen “accidentally” strangles his maid to death when she unaccountably resists his attempts to seduce her while his wife is out, it’s to John he turns for assistance in disposing of the body, and where better than in the river? But submerged bodies have a habit of rising to the surface…

There’s actually a great little story hidden in here, but it’s surrounded by so much waffle that I had to exercise maximum willpower to stick it out to the end, and even then I eventually began to skip past the endless descriptions and digressions.

When the inquest is held, circumstances arise that throw suspicion on John, though there’s not enough evidence for the police to arrest him. So what we have are two competing moral dilemmas, and two contrasting characters. Stephen is selfish and egotistical, easily able to find reasons why everything is always someone else’s fault. His belief in himself as a great poet means he feels he is more valuable than all the ordinary people in the world. John, on the other hand, is loyal to a fault, ready to accept a sacrifice of his own reputation to save Stephen and, more chivalrously, Stephen’s wife from the consequences of Stephen’s guilt. But if it looks as if John will be arrested, will Stephen allow him to take the rap even if it means John will be hanged? And will John’s loyalty take him all the way to the gallows?

Challenge details:
Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime
Publication Year: 1920

The book is quite short, so I felt that it could easily be filled by these dilemmas and the impact of them on the two men and the wider community. Instead, Herbert fills the pages with extraneous waffle – a lengthy description of the new styles of dancing, endless descriptions of the river and its human inhabitants, jocular character portraits of people who play no real part in the plot. The entire extent of the police investigation is that they turn up when the body is found, ask the two men if they know anything and accept their assurances that they don’t. We never hear another word about the police – they interview no one, search no houses, make no effort to find if the maid had any personal relationships, etc. Herbert could have got some drama into it by having the police net slowly tighten around the guilty men, but instead he prefers to describe the river again and again.

AP Herbert

Then there’s the treatment of the maid. No one in the Close is bothered about her having been murdered. It doesn’t even make them fear that there might be a madman on the loose. Even those who suspect John merely seem to rather disapprove of murdering maids, mostly because good maids aren’t easy to get. The girl’s parents don’t appear to care either – they see it as a money-making opportunity, demanding that John pay them compensation. It’s all too unrealistic, even for this era.

And yet those central dilemmas are interesting and Herbert handles them well, when he’s paying attention to them. The sections where we are allowed inside the minds of the two men are excellent, and both feel psychologically believable in how they act and then react as time passes. The denouement is very good, with some of the tension that I felt should have been there all along. And the ending is quite satisfying, though marred by another lengthy, supposedly humorous digression between the climax and the last pages. As a novella, this could have been great. As a novel, the story is strangled by digressions, smothered by descriptions, and drowned in the endless river.

I downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg.

28 thoughts on “The House by the River by A.P. Herbert

  1. As I read your review, FictionFan, I was thinking about how important good editing is. The premise of the story sounds great (although what’s with no-one caring about the maid’s death?!). And there are places where I can see that a little more depth would have added to the story. But too much description of – if I can put it this way – the wrong things can just take away from the story. It’s a shame, too, because there are the seeds of a fine story here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, excess padding isn’t as normal in these older crime novels as it is today usually, but this one felt in need of a strong edit. Which was a pity because when he concentrated on the psychological impact on the two men it was really very well done. Oh well!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh how sad that this was spoilt by all the digressions when it did have some interesting psychological insights in there; should I just sit here rolling my eyes at losing a good maid being the only reason they disapproved of the murder or be shocked at what could be a reflection of actual attitudes at the time (no, I don’t think it could be quite so bad). Wish the story had been better. I have Holy Deadlock by him on my TBR and am hoping that fares better

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I know the maids in vintage crime are often like the guys in red uniforms in Star Trek – only there to be killed! But somehow they were all even more casual about it than usual this time – usually at least people seem shocked when a murder happens, even if it’s *only* a maid! I hope Holy Deadlock is good – there was lots of good stuff in this one but his passion for describing the river got in the way…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a feeling, based on your review, that I would have given this even less smiles. Stephen sounds like an incredibly unlikable character! (and John too good for his own good!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, yes, Stephen is pretty horrible but quite fun to hiss at! John should really have told the truth from the beginning but once he started to lie it got harder. Pity about all the waffle – there was quite a good book in there somewhere!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My question is did anyone kick Stephen? Because that was my first thought upon hearing of his antics. While the premise sounds interesting (though better executed in a story like Rebecca), I wouldn’t have made it as far as you did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, John should definitely have kicked him and then turned him in to the police! But for some reason everyone loved him! Yes, I had to do a fair amount of skimming to get to the end, but I was interested to know what the outcome would be…


    • Yes, it was a pity, because he did the psychological stuff really well but it was buried in amongst all the descriptions. If he’d mentioned the river one more time I might have had to shove him in… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, well, if it sends you off to make waffles then it has at least served a good purpose! 😉 Yes I felt that they could at least have pretended to care about the maid, even just a little!

      Liked by 1 person

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