The House Above the River (1959) by Josephine Bell

The House Above the River by Josephine Bell

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Something was going on there that he did not understand, and had no wish to take part in. Something dangerous, some evil, beginning to show itself, suddenly, startlingly […] And there was a certainty, at least, of something planned, an organized wickedness. It had come to the surface in a seething moment of horror, and sunk back, leaving only a question, an uneasy dread. Giles was sure the lid would come off again, but when and where and how and against whom directed, he had no idea at all.”

This wasn’t Giles Armitage’s plan for his French sailing holiday, to be trapped by fog in a small village in Brittany. He’s itching to move on to the next destination, though his companions, Tony and Phillipa, are happy to explore the village. They even make friends with the English inhabitants of the local chateau.

Giles is shocked to meet the owner’s wife—his ex-fiancée Miriam, who broke his heart long ago. And Miriam is afraid. There is something terribly wrong at the chateau. Whatever is taking place between Miriam and her husband Henry Davenport, Giles wants nothing to do with it. As the fog closes in, however, he may no longer have a choice.

The House Above the River begins as a competent, undemanding holiday thriller with a touch of sly humor, before transforming into something much darker and stranger. Early on, the book’s strengths are its nautical details (honestly, a few too many for my taste) and a strong sense of place. The contrast between the cheerfulness of the village and the damp tension of the chateau is striking. Then shadow overtakes the sunshine, as a series of disturbing events leaves the characters, and the reader, wondering who can be trusted.

Giles and his friends are basically cardboard cutouts, but the inhabitants of the chateau are more colorful. Housekeeper Francine is far too involved in her employers’ lives. Henry’s cousin Susan is easily cowed by her older relations. Henry is a villain, according to his wife, but if anything, his visitors are unnerved by how passive and distant he appears, “so very affable, and not really there at all. It was like talking to a sleep-walker.” Though he and Miriam often travel to Paris, their visits are not exactly a mad whirl of activity.

“Did you have a good time in Paris?” Giles asked, feeling it was time he joined the conversation.

Henry did not answer. But Miriam turned her head to look at him, and said, in a slow grave voice, suggesting hidden depths of sorrow, “Henry does not go to Paris for fun. He goes for treatment of his slipped disc.”

Eight years ago, Miriam’s charisma and recklessness captivated Giles. Is her insistence that her life is in danger merely drama to liven up a dull summer? Or will his fear of becoming ensnared again cause Giles to abandon the woman he once loved to a dreadful fate?

The House Above the River by Josephine BellThis early portion is all very wholesome and maddeningly predictable. Even in its most sinister moments, there’s never a sense of real danger. Giles and his friends seem more comfortable with market days in the village, messing about in boats, and chaste romances. The fog continues, forcing Giles and company to sleep at the chateau, and it looks like the book is heading for even more cliched waters.

Then at the halfway point, everything changes. The plot spins off in all kinds of directions, from travelogue to pure thriller to country-house detective story, all of them surprising. Disaster is in the air and everyone feels the urgency, even if they each have their own ideas about what is going on. The only clear thing is that there is such a tangled knot at the center of the Davenport family that perhaps only murder can untie it. Or maybe not even that.

The skeptical reader may wonder about the instant romance that springs up between Giles and Susan. The boat-mad Giles and seasick Susan are surely an odd couple. Susan, sheltered and naive as she is, at least realizes that “there would always be two women in his life, and one of them was Shuna,” his yacht. She’s more right than she knows.

He looked at his boat, lovely on the dark sea. The bright track of the moon glittered beside him, running away towards the mainland, a black shadow, three miles off. On the other side, the long chain of islands, two miles away, glimmered palely.  Shuna and he were complete in their isolation. Together they harnessed and fought the wind and the sea. Aboard her he lived as he never experienced living on shore, at his job […] But this communion with his ship and with the impersonal forces that both sustained and menaced her went further. It went beyond imagination, inventiveness, all that comprised human brain and human skill, to a far deeper contact, a much fuller comprehension. And how could Susan share in this? How could she break into the region where he and Shuna explored together? And if she could not come there, would it not be a betrayal of them all to attempt it?

Site of Penguerec Massacre
Site of Penguerec Massacre

The Second World War casts a long shadow across these characters. Henry’s English father returned home with his son after the German invasion of France, while his French mother remained behind in Penguerec. Though both men served the Allies well during the war, there is still tension in the village. Some still feel that Henry abandoned France in its hour of need. Giles, Susan, and their friends defend Henry. arguing that he was able to do more for France in the British Army. But the villagers find it hard to forget that Penguerec was the site of a real-life massacre in 1944, when Nazis machine-gunned 42 civilians to death. They all went through that—Henry didn’t. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that some of the calamities that befall the Davenports and their guests resemble the guerilla warfare techniques of Resistance maquis.

Mystery readers live to have the rug pulled out from under them, and Josephine Bell achieves that repeatedly here. Even Giles and Susan become less irritating in the second half of the book, as they try, with their bright English normalcy, to disinfect the poison that has seeped into life at the chateau. The vicious perfection of the ending does much to compensate for a very long and dull beginning. The House Above the River could be a classic if it had been able to maintain its wicked delights throughout the entire book, but those who make it to the second half will be amply rewarded.


The House Above the River is out of print in the United States. A few used copies are for sale, but they’re not exactly cheap. This title is available in paperback from Bello Books in the UK—though maybe not for long, since Bello has deactivated its author pages for Josephine Bell.

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