The House by the River tends to be remembered today - if at all - as a post-war film directed by the brilliant Fritz Lang. But the film was based on a novel written thirty years earlier by A.P. Herbert, and this is today's Forgotten Book. One thing is for sure: it really does not deserve to be forgotten, since it's very well-written, and in some ways well ahead of its time.
This is a novel that is definitely not a whodunit, but a portrait of a murderer. There's a tendency these days for some fans of whodunits to lament the fact that so many crime novels focus on character and setting rather than puzzle. But it's not a new development, as this book illustrates. Herbert focuses on the effect that guilt and moral responsibility for a crime may have on different personalities, and in some ways this novel shows him as a forerunner of the likes of Patricia Highsmith.
The main protagonist is a poet called Stephen Byrne, who lives with his wife and young daughter in a house by the Thames. One night, when Mrs Byrne is out, he makes a clumsy pass at their maid, Emily. One thing leads to another, but not in a good way.Stephen strangles Emily, and has to decide whether to confess his crime, or hide it. He chooses the latter course, and enlists the help of his neighbour and friend, a dour but decent civil servant.
The pair dump poor Emily's body in the river, but inevitably it is discovered. The twist is that John, the hapless chum, rather than Stephen, becomes the prime suspect. Herbert explores their intertwined fates in a way that would, I feel, have impressed Highsmith. I don't know if she ever read this novel,but it is worthy of her. Yes, that good. The Thames, in particular, is evocatively described, but there are also some very good snapshots of the supporting cast. All in all, a book that ought to be better known. John Norris, that very well-read blogger, is a fan of this novel, and as usual, his judgment is spot on.