The Reckoning (John Madden 4) by Rennie Airth

the reckoning rennie airthAftermath of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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).

Post-war food rationing...
Post-war food rationing…

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.

Even chocolate was rationed...barbaric!!
Even chocolate was rationed…barbaric!!

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.

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33 thoughts on “The Reckoning (John Madden 4) by Rennie Airth

  1. This one appeals because of the war, I think. Splendid review! (It was before Madden’s football career!)

    And look at how they rationed! FEF, what brand of chocolate do you like best? I see up there it says Nestles.

    So, this book rates in at 4 big smiles and a little smile? ‘Cause we can’t call it five!


    • Thank you! (Or after – he looks nearly as old as the Professor…)

      I know! Rationing chocolate! Unthinkable! I like most chocolate, but my favourite is undoubtedly a simple bar of Galaxy milk chocolate, made by the same people who make Mars Bars, I believe. Yummmmmmmmy!!! What about you? (I mean – what chocolate do you like, not what chocolate are you made of. Though, now I think of it, chocolate Professors would be…sweet!)

      Nope – just missed 5 stars! Phew! That means you don’t have to add it to your TBR.


      • (*grumbles*)

        *laughing* I’ve never heard of Galaxy chocolate! Well…I think Godiva. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I thinks Sarris. Doesn’t it all taste the same? (I’d be made of something cherry.)

        That’s good. I couldn’t bear to go up another book. I might die.


  2. Oh yes, the second-hand device. Not my favorite, either. This review reminds me a bit of the Foyle’s War series. Similar idea!


  3. FictionFan – I couldn’t agree more about the way war is sometimes woven into plots. Absolutely it has awful lasting effects. But as you say, most people did get through the wars and did OK or better. It’s hard to strike that balance between acknowledging the devastation and also acknowledging people’s resilience. I’m glad this series does that for you.


    • It is a hard balance to strike and the last couple of decades have seen it swing too far towards over-generalising the after-effects, in my opinion. This whole series has taken a much more reaslistic view, I think – yes, horrific damage was done, but most people who survived physically intact recovered emotionally.


  4. Sounds like this book violates the “show don’t tell” rule. I don’t like getting my info through explanation. It feels to contrived. And for the life of me, I don’t understand how the murder of a banker could be without motive, considering recent banking scandals. 😀

    I’ll stick with my current TBR list.


    • Yes, it’s a shame he’s developed this style because he really writes well and both his descriptive writing and characterisation are strong when he uses them – that’s why it feels like laziness to me rather than lack of talent.

      Hahaha! Yes – I think this was back in the (g)olden days when you could tell the difference between a banker and a natural disaster…

      *trudges back to the drawing board*


  5. Thanks so much for another fine review, and thanks for not adding to the TBR. I can see this is fine-but-not-for-me though chocolate as fighting food, well, yess. I’ll fight anyone for the last chocolate.

    Would you believe it, the postman had the effrontery to bring me another book this morning. I have no idea, really I don’t, why all these market place sellers keep sending me second hand books

    Not to mention the fact that more appeared on my Kindle.

    I think one of my cats must be treading on the Kindle and somehow doing hot-key stuff


    • You see? You’re just like me! It’s not our fault – we’re victims. Barely a day goes by without books getting chucked at us from some direction or another. Really, we ought to set up a support group – and make them read half the books for us. You’re more trusting about your cats than I am though – I’m pretty sure Tuppence orders me stuff intentionally…I’m sure I sometimes hear her chuckling in the middle of the night…


  6. My parents were raised during the depression. I think about those times when I read books like that – and there are many of that kind. After the war Americans recovered from it more quickly than Europe, I think. Yet the grandparents, and the parents to a degree were marked. They saved their money to buy things, and were content in a two-bedroom bungalow with an attic and a cellar. Credit cards didn’t exist, and I think they were much better off without them. Now we have a generation who can sprain their thumbs regularly. I wonder how we and they would manage given a similar scenario. Okay, I’m done rambling. 😀


    • Yes, Europe took a long time to recover – particularly economically. And no-one who was in the war ever forgot it. But I honestly believe that for most of them it was a spur to achieve a better future rather than something that dragged them back all the time. But I don’t know – I suspect if the current generation was put to the test, there’s probably still as much courage and endurance as ever. So long as they had access to facebook, anyway…and showers… 😉


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