A fairly early entry in the Wycliffe series. This one was written in 1971, which affects the social assumptions underlying some of the plot. A woman’s body is recovered from the river, reviving old scandals that others would prefer to keep quiet. Caroline Bryce was the half-sister of an important politician, and the wife of one of the owners of a major employer in her village — but she had married her much older husband at a very young age, and was already pregnant when they married. Wycliffe has to disentangle the old secrets from the new in his search for the killer. Another death follows when it appears that he is getting close to the truth, and Wycliffe finds himself having to gamble more than once on finding adequate proof for something he suspects on skimpy evidence.
An excellent whodunnit with plenty of suspects and motives for Wycliffe and the reader to disentangle. Burley creates a strong sense of place with his depiction of the Cornish town of Treen, and some fascinating characters in the dysfunctional family that has been ripped apart by murder.
This is the usual Lovejoy formula, as the amiable, amorous antiques dealer blunders his way through a mystery where everyone but him knows what’s going on. Unfortunately, this one really is formulaic, and the formula isn’t working very well. The plot is incoherent and it’s difficult to keep track of the large cast of characters and their place in the plot. The usual Lovejoy asides to the reader about antiques, women and life still have charm, but they’re getting tired and are not enough in themselves to sustain interest. This one can still provide a few hours of entertainment for long-term fans, but I’d recommend that new readers start with one of the earlier books. They’re better, and don’t require previous knowledge of the series to be able to follow what’s going on.
Fans of the tv show should also note that the tv series cleaned the characters up quite a lot, and the original book versions of Lovejoy and some of the secondary characters are much darker. There’s a lot more sex and violence, and a much higher corpse count. I prefer the book version, but the shift in characterisation could be a shock to those used to Ian MacShane’s version.