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Monday 30 March 2020

‘Evil River’ by Keith Jacobsen

Published by The Book Guild,
28 February 2020.
ISBN: 978-1-913208-30-1 (PB)

A book by an unfamiliar author is always something of a leap of faith – but one of the great pleasures of reviewing fiction is the occasional unexpected gem that falls into one's lap.

The premise of Evil River was certainly intriguing: an Oxford academic as accidental sleuth, looking into the apparent suicide of one of his students. And sure enough, the more I read, the more promising the novel itself became, until before long I was completely engrossed.

Creative writing manuals have a great deal to say about 'voice': the author's unique style and way with words. Keith Jacobsen has chosen first-person narration as a story-telling medium and puts a different spin on the concept: he captures the 'voice' of Alan Harris, the academic, to perfection. His measured, diffident, slightly formal tone comes across loud and clear as he recounts the events surrounding the tragic death of Simon Harvey, a student in whom, we discover, he was beginning to see echoes of his own emotionally stilted youth.

Alan's own reserved personality comes to life just as vividly as those of the people involved in Simon's sad story. After the student's body is discovered in the river, close to a punt in which are two empty bottles, one which contained whisky, the other tranquillizers, he finds himself asking questions about the young man's life, and seeking out his friends – one in particular – and members of his family. What he finds is profoundly disturbing and leads the unsuspecting don down paths he never expected to venture on, into mystery and danger, and friendships he had never thought to find.

The action moves between Oxford, suburban Liverpool and central London, and all three are portrayed with a sure hand. Jacobsen clearly knows Oxford very well indeed and recreates the unique 'bubble' atmosphere of academia in the early 1970s with a sure hand. He reminds the reader that as well as the beautiful ancient stone dreaming spires and picturesque quads and meadows, the city has its less salubrious side; the river bend in which Simon's body gets caught is an unlovely and malodorous tangle of weeds.

Evil River is clearly the work of a skilful and experienced writer. A story which begins on a sad but quiet note rapidly escalates into something darker, and eventually picks up and runs with the theme of families and the harm they can inflict on each other. Read it, and perhaps, like me, you'll feel you've had an unexpected treat.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Keith Jacobsen was born in Liverpool in 1948. He was educated at St Catherine's College, Oxford. He worked as a private piano teacher after taking early retirement from the civil service in 1999, having been a civil servant for twenty-seven years, moving up through the ranks of what was then known as the administrative class, taking a special interest in international health relations.  He now teaches on a voluntary basis, leading a piano group of his local U3A (University of the third Age).  He is the author of Place of a Skull (Thames River Press, 2013) and Sisters of Fury (Book Guild, 2015).  He now lives in North London with his wife, Valerie, also a senior civil servant

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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