Narrator John Farringdale kicks off his account by explaining he has been persuaded by old friend Frederick Ellingham to relate the details of a tragedy that occurred at Scarweather, a tragedy in which both men were heavily involved.
Farringdale then introduces his two great friends at university: his cousin Eric Tallard Foster and reader in chemistry Ellingham, an older Rennaissance man with a wide and astonishing variety of acquaintances. Foster, although studying medicine, is also keen on archaeology, and it is this interest that leads him to make the acquaintance of Professor Tolgen Reisby via their memberships in the London Archaeological Union. In due course Foster is invited to visit Scarweather, Reisby's home near the northern England fishing hamlet of Aberleven, and a friendship develops, as a result of which Farringdale and Ellingham also meet the Reisby family.
The first hint of unusual undercurrents swirl by when Ellingham reveals to Farringdale he had seen the professor in a sailors' eating house in Poplar. Ellingham takes Farringdale there to lunch, despite the place not being as he puts it "a proper scene for a young gentleman". By chance they observe the professor playing chess there and given Poplar is not the most salubrious area of London, it seems Reisby is one of those eccentric academics so often found in mystery fiction and doubtless also in real life. In any event, the friendship between the three young men and the professor and his wife flourishes and the trio soon become visitors to Scarweather. Before long the aforementioned tragedy occurs. World War I intervenes and so it is only years later that the characters return to Scarweather and unravel the nature of the tragedy.
My verdict: Once past the first couple of chapters the pace, while still unspooling slowly, picks up and the reader is treated to one or two nicely done pen portraits of characters as well as interesting details on how an archeological dig is conducted. At one point Farringdale asks the rhetorical question "who could have suspected...the gathering elements of a dark and appalling tragedy?" Astute readers will be already be suspecting ahead of him, but part of the twisty ending may well catch them by surprise despite pointers earlier towards at least part of the revelations. A matter that intrigued me, and one no doubt rooted in the social conventions of the time, is that nothing is done when the solution to the tragedy is uncovered, the reason for lack of action being concern about ramifications for relatives. While this gives readers an ethical point to ponder, it will also disappoint some. Thus I reluctantly award this novel a B, with the hope of better liking the next I read by this author.