🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
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.
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.
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! 😉 )