When Karen Herbert was made redundant from her corporate job, she did what most people only dream of. She sat down, and she began to write a book. A mere eighteen months later, she had two books contracted to Western Australian powerhouse, Fremantle Press. The first of these to be released is The River Mouth, an atmospheric crime debut that explores the legacies of the things we keep secret – even from our own families.
A decade after fifteen-year-old Darren Davies is shot dead by the Weymouth River, his mother Sandra receives a visit from the police. They tell her that her best friend Barbara has been found dead on a remote Pilbara Road, and that her DNA is a match for the DNA that was found under Darren’s fingernails. They are going to reopen the investigation, believing that Barbara may have had something to do with Sandra’s son’s death. But, while Sandra begins to question everything she thought she knew about Barbara, something deep within her refuses to believe that Barbara could be the killer.
Told in alternating points of view, The River Mouth interrogates the intricacies of Darren’s death and the events that surround it. It is tense, it is detailed, it is evocative, and it will keep you up reading past your bedtime.
The first point of view is that of Sandra, who works as a nurse in the local emergency room. In the course of her daily work, Sandra is often confronted with the uglier side of small town life, including the sexual assault of a young woman by a member of her family. This brings back memories of the Weymouth Rapist, who was active around the time of Darren’s death and who terrorised the town by climbing in through young women’s bedroom windows at night, leaving a handkerchief behind as a calling card. Sandra is an astute observer of people, and knows a lot about her fellow townspeople, but she’s also an older woman, a divorcee, and a woman whose child has been killed. She’s tired, jaded and a little bit cynical.
The other point of view, by contrast, is that of Darren’s best friend Colin, who is Barbara’s son. Colin’s parts of the story are told in increments that count up to the day of Darren’s death, lending a sense of drama to the seemingly ordinary boyhood activities which are taking place.
Importantly, the reader is never given the opportunity to hear from Darren or Barbara directly, which adds to the tragedy of their deaths, and speaks to the fact that in the real world, murder investigations can’t always be neatly wrapped up in three hundred pages or less.
Herbert’s setting is almost a character, with the river itself taking on a special significance for each of the characters. It is a place that brings them all together, and where much of the action takes place. It is also a rich setting for description, giving Herbert the chance to show off how good she is at evoking place. This is a novel which is rooted in the Australian landscape, from the cray fishing boats and the bushland surrounding the river, to the Pilbara road which Barbara was travelling before the book began.
The plot does occasionally make large jumps forward, and some of the big reveals felt like they came out of nowhere. This was a little bit disorienting, considering that while the novel is eminently readable, it doesn’t exactly move at a cracking pace. The level of detail packed into the book almost makes it feel like as a reader, you are supposed to digest it slowly; yet at times, I felt like I’d missed a vital piece of information being introduced and had to backtrack.
If you’re looking for pacy, shock-a-minute crime fiction, then this may not be the book for you. But, if you’re willing to allow the story to unfold slowly and beautifully, then settle in for a long night of reading. You’re not going to want to put this literary and lyrical crime novel down until you’re finished.