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When a retired banker is shot while fishing, it seems to be a bafflingly motiveless crime. The man was a respectable, self-effacing type with no known enemies. Even more bafflingly, elements of the crime mirrored an earlier murder that had taken place hundreds of miles away in Aberdeenshire. Because of these similarities, Billy Styles, now a Scotland Yard inspector, is asked to investigate possible links. And when it is discovered that the second victim had been trying to get an address for John Madden, he is dragged back from retirement and once again becomes involved in the investigation.
This fourth entry in the John Madden series very much follows the pattern of the previous one, The Dead of Winter, which is no bad thing. The Second World War is now over but the country is still suffering the aftermaths. One of Airth’s strengths is in creating an authentic setting and in this one he gives a very credible picture of life under rationing, and London still marked by bombsites and ruined buildings. He tells the story at a leisurely pace with some fine descriptive writing and his characters are, as always, well-rounded and believable. There is a feel of the Golden Age about his writing – the police force is made up of honourable, upright officers from top to bottom, mostly men, but we get to see the beginnings of that changing with Lily Poole now having been promoted to detective constable. Again there’s an authentic feel about Lily’s position – she’s no superhero and the sexism she encounters is simply part of the culture of the society of the time rather than blatant and caricatured (as it so often is in modern crime fiction).
As usual, the plot is rooted in the wars that disrupted the first half of the century and Airth shows the after-effects of some of the horrors that took place; but again, he does it with a welcome degree of restraint. I tire easily of the huge piles of fiction that all suggest that everyone who lived through the wars was permanently emotionally damaged – these were the people of my parents’ generation and the vast bulk of them managed to get back to normality fairly quickly and lead as happy and productive lives as earlier or later generations, and Airth’s characters are in the main cut from this cloth. However, as Airth shows, some people were very badly affected, physically or emotionally, and this allows him to build a level of moral complexity into the plot that lifts it above the run of the psychopathic serial killer novel, and makes it a more emotional and thought-provoking read as a result.
My only criticism of this book is the same as I had of the last one – that is, that much of the story is told at second-hand via the device of the policemen and Madden telling each other about their investigations rather than taking the reader out and about with them. This means again that we don’t get to meet many of the witnesses for ourselves and still feels a little like lazy writing to me. However I found the plot of this one much more interesting, with a genuine mystery at its core. I admit, I felt I was way ahead of the investigators for much of the book, but then I have the advantage of having read the previous books so knew what direction Airth was likely to take.
These are thoughtful, intelligent novels that are as much about how the wars affected the society of the time as they are about the specific crimes. With likeable main characters, a good plot and a strong historical context, this one is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates the more traditional kind of crime novel.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.