The Dead of Winter (John Madden 3) by Rennie Airth

the dead of winterConvincing war-time setting…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

A young Polish woman is garrotted on a blackout-dark London street. Around her are some burnt matches as if someone had been looking for something. But nothing has been stolen and it appears that the woman was not assaulted prior to her death. When the police manage to identify her, it turns out she was a land girl working for ex-police inspector John Madden, who is still a close friend of the investigating officer Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair. So it seems only natural that Madden should become involved in the investigation. However, it soon becomes apparent that Rosa’s death is just one of many and that the police are hunting a deadly assassin who has pursued his trade in many countries across Europe. But why did he target Rosa? And how will the police track him down?

This is the third in the John Madden series. Airth must be one of the least prolific writers in the world – the first book, River of Darkness, was published in 1999, then came The Blood-Dimmed Tide in 2003, followed by this one in 2009. And the fourth book, The Reckoning, is due out this month. The result of this glacial timescale means that I have completely forgotten everything about the first two books except for a general sense of having enjoyed them. I can therefore confirm that this third one works perfectly well as a standalone.

Set in 1944, we have leapt forward in time some twenty years from the first book. Madden and his wife Helen are still idyllically happy together and both their children are now young adults serving in the war effort. Much of the investigation takes place in London and Airth gives a really convincing picture of the city at the tail end of the war, with everyone waiting wearily for the fighting to be over. The Blitz is long past, but occasional V-2s are still falling, so the blackout is still in place and the exhausted Civil Defence wardens are still patrolling the nighttime streets. Some families are still divided, with wives and children living away from the city for safety. But we also see how people are living in rural areas, as the investigation moves closer towards Madden’s home territory. While the war meanders on, farms and villages are surviving with the help of land girls and volunteers from amongst the women, and Airth shows how a kind of barter-system has sprung up to help the communities deal with the shortage of food.

London 1944 - it wasn't only men who kept a stiff upper lip...
London 1944 – it wasn’t only men who kept a stiff upper lip…

The plot is fairly complex, though not much to my personal taste, to be honest – the international assassin story is not one that interests me much. However there is a more personal element to it too, and a mystery – mainly around why Rosa became a victim. The characterisation of Madden and the various police officers is strong and convincing, in a pleasantly old-fashioned way, much as if the book had been written around the time it was set. Hence, plenty of heroic stiff-upper-lipping and very little angst-ridden emoting – all good, as far as this reader is concerned. And although the ending is thriller-esque, it stays within the overall tone of realism of the book.

Rennie Airth
Rennie Airth

However, there is one major weakness that prevents the book from being as good as it might have been, and that is Airth’s strange decision to tell the reader about the investigation at second-hand, through a series of conversations between the various police officers. Thus, we don’t get to hear directly from many of the witnesses – we just get a report of what they said. It’s an odd device, and means that the book becomes almost monotone. In a less skilled and careful author, I might even say it smacked of laziness. Nevertheless, the quality of the descriptions of England at the end of the war together with some excellent characterisation still mean that the book is well worth reading, despite this peculiar story-telling method. Recommended.

(Semi-interesting factlet: Rennie Airth wrote a wonderfully funny caper novel back in 1969, Snatch, which later became one of my favourite books of all time. In fact, it was the first book I ever reviewed on Amazon UK, back in 2003 when all reviewers were called A Customer. It’s a truly dreadful review, with a glaringly awful grammatical error in the second sentence, but it’s still my baby! And I’m delighted to say that ten people have apparently found it helpful – so that’s nearly one a year! 😉 )

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

45 thoughts on “The Dead of Winter (John Madden 3) by Rennie Airth

    • The Madden series is totally different though – so much so that when the first one came out, I really wasn’t sure for ages if it was the same author or just a strange coincidence of names. I think it was about 20 years between Snatch and his next book. But I do think you might enjoy the Madden books.

  1. FictionFan – Well done on that book review! I am impressed. And this one sounds like a fascinating look at a particular place and time. That always gets my attention. 🙂 Sounds like one to put on the list once I knock off some of the more urgent reads that I hear yelling for me…

    • Haha! I can only assume I didn’t know how to go back in and edit my errors in those days – and now I feel it’s part of the historical record! 😉

      Yes, I always enjoy Airth – slower and a bit old-fashioned, but I rather like that.

  2. But…but…an assassin that moves around like that is very neatio, I think. John Madden…you know, that reminds me of Madden of the Football fame. I think he looks a bit like the author, really.

    You’re incapable of writing a bad review! You’ve been reviewing for a long time, then. You should post that review!

    • Yes, but I think the assassin bit makes the book sound more exciting than it is, really. Ooh, now I’d never heard of the footballer, but googling him, you’re right ! There is a distinct similarity. But Airth is a Kiwi, I think, so must be purely coincidental.

      Haha! No, really I’m not! And I absolutely couldn’t give it room on the blog! If you click on the link at Snatch, it’ll take you through to the Amazon page and mine is the only review. (But be ready to catch me when I fall off the pedestal…)

      No, after that one, I didn’t do another review till 2010 and really only started reviewing regularly in 2011.

        • A New Zealander – maybe it’s just a British expression. I know – my lack of knowledge of American sporting stars is shocking! I’m thoroughly ashamed…

          Not if you catch me!

          Yes, I should get back to doing wee short reviews. I actually think you might enjoy Snatch – pity it’s out of print.

          • I’ll try to remember that. It is! At least, you know who T. Brady is.

            Then I might break a bone!

            I think I’m the only one ever who likes when books go out of print. Then I don’t have to worry about them.

            • I do! Not to mention V Wilfork!

              *shocked to her socks* How utterly, abominally, brutally, meanly and downright, dadblamed, wickedly rude!!!!! And anyway, am I not worth a little pain???

              Of course, you could get a second-hand copy…

            • My favorite! Well done, FEF. *bigly smile*

              Oh no, what did I say? I’m sure I didn’t mean it…really… You are! But a broken bone hurts, I hear…

              I don’t know what those are… *turns aways and whistles*

            • Thank you! He’s…unforgettable…

              *waves baseball bat menacingly* I suspect my C-W-W is in more danger of getting a broken bone if he doesn’t catch me than if he does…

              I’ll stock the castle library with some for when you visit…

            • *laughing* You must be practicing baseball! Okay, I’ll catch you.

              Oh yes, make sure theres’s plenty of books in the library. Of course, no one reads books in a library that bigly big.

            • Yes I haven’t decided whether to be a pitcher or a catcher yet though – which do you think? Though I’ve always wanted to do a drag bunt, so perhaps I should be a hitter?

              Not even if they’re locked in for several months with no other form of entertainment? *chuckles wickedly and oils lock*

            • Well…is FEF the athletic type? (Yes! I will take this question seriously.) Pitching is hard on the arm. So…catching! But not the catcher. How about outfield? Then you can bat, too!

              The professor would just do pushups and break the door down! Doesn’t that sound scary? And how could you separate yourself from all those books?

            • Haha! Not noticeably! Outfield sounds good! Do you get to sit in a comfy deck chair with a sunshade and a glass of lemonade? ‘Cos if so, I’d be willing to miss my turn at batting…

              Ooh, that sounds terrifying…and rather awesome too! *imagines Professor with biceps like Rafa – swoons bigger than bigly* Oh, I’d have my Kindle!

            • Oh no, you’ve got to be ready to dive, and basically kill yourself, to catch the ball! No time for lemonade, or sitting!

              So you’d want me to break out, which means I couldn’t. I’d be trapped, I see. I’d take your kindle!

            • Oh! That all sounds a bit…energetic, especially in this heat (Glasgow’s the hottest place in Britain today – FF has melted into a pinkish blob of misshapen grease. Attractive, huh?) No I’d really rather have a sport that didn’t involve so much…em…sportiness. How about basketball? You just sort of stand there dropping a ball repeatedly into a net don’t you? I could do that…though I might need a ladder.

              Aha! that means my plan worked then! I think. Didn’t it? Why do I always end up so confused??

            • *laughing lots* But I don’t believe the description! Oh, I bet it’s hotter here. You’d die if you came over here! How hot is it? Basketball? *laughing* That’s even harder! Constant motion. Yes, I’d need a ladder too.

              I’d go through the window.

            • ‘Tis about 27 or 28 – scorching! Boiling! Torture! And you’re right – I thought I might die when I visited Ontario in July one year. Why…how could people live in such places???

              Ah, straight into the Nessie-infested moat? Good plan!

            • Perhaps! Or perhaps I’m actually a 6-foot bearded haka-dancing prop forward in the Scottish rugby team in disguise…

              I’d bite through it.

  3. A new Airth on the way? Now that is a treat in store. the only problem is, as you say, that I shall have to go back and re-read the earlier ones in order to remember all the relevant details. Oh well, not that much of a trial 🙂

    • That’s what I would have liked to do, but I just couldn’t find the time. But hopefully the new one will be like this one, and not require much knowledge of what’s gone before.

  4. That is quite an amount of time between books. Anne Lamott is a slow writer, too. It’s amazing how stories about WWII are still proliferating.

  5. I do like international assasin plots – but they have to be pulp, like Daniel Silva’s stories. I can’t read “real” books hardly at all anymore…..

    • Yes I always think of assassins as belonging to pulp fiction too. Doesn’t fit as well in this kind of more ‘literary’ crime somehow. I’m struggling to get interested in any serious books myself at the moment – maybe it’s the summer weather…

  6. I hate second hand story telling! I feel M. Twain disagrees though. He always seems to take climaxes and then switch to a narrative to tell you whats happening rather than letting you read it as it happens. (though maybe this isn’t exactly what you mean)

    I don’t think I’d have much faith in a detective named John Madden.

    • *shocked face* Criticising Twain? Are you trying to start a war???

      Yes, maybe it’s kind of similar-ish. What this author would do is, instead of having a dialogue between a witness and a police officer – therefore having to create a character for the witness – he’d tell the reader about the conversation by having one policeman relay it to another – thus not having to create a new character at all. So you ended up with lots of talking policemen telling each other stuff, and it got a bit dull after a while. Still, there was lots of good stuff in the book too.

      But see, for us Brits, we wouldn’t be thinking of the footballer…

      • Well then it’s a similar thing. Twain will take you through a whole scene as it happens then grow tired of it and narrate the climax in a very detached and terse manner. I have held a grudge for one part in particular from “A Connecticut Yankee.”

        Well I’ll try not to in the future as well.

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