Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Postwar British crime novel goes beyond the search for a serial killer

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A serial killer is stalking 1947 Britain, executing widely dispersed aging gentlefolk who seem never to have harmed anyone and have no known connection to each other.

When the name of retired Scotland Yard inspector John Madden pops up among the clues, the sleuth is right back into the thick of the investigation.

Author Rennie Airth, a 79-year-old transplanted South African and former Reuters news correspondent, evokes an era often ignored -- that immediate postwar period when rationing of food and petrol still existed throughout Great Britain, and Blitz-damaged buildings were everywhere.

It was a time when Britain was tentatively embracing a Labour government and the new National Health Service -- Madden approves of both -- and learning that winning the war was turning out to be far less glorious than history paints.

The Reckoning is a pretty cracking read of a police procedural; lots of red herrings, lots of fascinating characters, lots of plodding police work eventually turning up a clue here and a lead there.

Airth imagines a world of more gentility than may really have existed; one can see Poirot or Miss Marple being this polite and restrained, had their investigations taken them among the working classes, London underworld and the desperately poor, but these are tough police officers who speak in Cockney slang but apparently never utter a four-letter word or trample on anyone's civil rights.

The Reckoning has an antiwar undercurrent -- not so much of the war just ended, but of the First World War and the senseless slaughter of millions of young men.

It may be quite deliberate on Airth's part, given the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war and the rewriting of history that's running amok right now. Madden was a young man in the trenches, and the plot causes him to reflect frequently on those horrors.

The mystery in The Reckoning is not limited to the hunt for the killer -- it also encompasses Madden and, indeed, Airth's works.

Some authors will welcome new readers by giving them too much back story to introduce the characters. By the time the new reader gets a few pages into the book, the contents of the character's last couple of adventures are all laid out -- who turned out to be the villain, who got killed, who slept with whom, who ran afoul of which superior, all sorts of stuff that take the pleasure out of going back and reading those books.

Airth goes to the opposite extreme.

The Reckoning is only the fourth John Madden book that Airth has written in 14 years. Airth assumes that the reader knows all the characters and their relationships, but the freshly arrived reader is left wondering why a man who seems as young as Madden has been retired for so long, or why the police patriarchy lets him just walk back in and take over an investigation. Readers shouldn't have to go to online sources to get the back story.

There's also a Basil Exposition witness/suspect who comes out of nowhere deep into the book to spend a good 20 pages or so explaining everything, and setting up an ending that you can see coming a mile away.

Still, for readers who lap up English police procedurals, The Reckoning is a good day at the lake.

 

Nick Martin is the Free Press' English-born education reporter who numbers Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Peter James, Giles Blunt and Louise Penny among his favourites to take to the lake.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 G6

History

Updated on Saturday, August 16, 2014 at 8:31 AM CDT: Formatting.

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