It is four on a January afternoon as we are introduced to a quartet of first year undergraduates attending the all female Persephone College, Oxford: Sally Watson, Daphne Loveridge, Gwyneth Pane, and Nina Harson. They are perched on the roof of the college boathouse, having assembled there for the purpose of inaugurating a secret society to be named the Lode League, the Lode being that part of the River Cherwell on the side of the island on which the college is situated.
The young women have hardly begun to organise the League when a canoe floats downriver, its sole occupant the body of the college Bursar, Miss Myra Denning, who was not popular with the students. Inspector Wythe, later joined by Detective-Inspector Braydon from Scotland Yard, are soon on the job, questioning the quartet and others, including Draga Czernak, an excitable Yugoslavian student who is convinced Miss Denning insulted her, talks about blood feuds, and was the only person to see Miss Denning leave to go on the river. Possible suspects are presented very quickly, but are their motives sufficiently strong to do away with Miss Denning?
Next to appear are Sally's sister and brother-in-law Betty and Basil Pongleton (what a wonderful surname!) as well as the bursar's only relative, her orphaned niece Pamela Exe, an undergraduate at Girton College, Cambridge.
The quartet sitting on the boathouse roof feel called upon to look into the bursar's death, feeling guilty about the fact that, as Sally tells Simon,"The four of us were forming a league to—well, to curse the bursar, and before we’d quite curse the bursar, and before we’d quite finished forming it, she came floating down the river. So now the league is going to try to solve the mystery...." Thus parallel investigations get under way: the police working through official channels and the ladies on the q.t., aided by male student friends at St Simeon's College, located a bit higher up the river.
My verdict: The alert reader may well begin to suspect a certain party once a few chapters have unspooled, but half the fun of getting there is the journey, which in this case involves watching the various investigators at work digging up the necessary information and making deductions from it. The solution to this novel depends on geography and timetables, making it a complicated tale that will need to be approached with attention to details, especially in its later stages. You have been warned!