Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness (1999)


River of Darkness

Recently, the Berryville Library purchased Rennie Airth’s John Madden mystery series. The first book in the series, River of Darkness, is set in 1920s England, when the specter of World War I still permeated the country’s psyche and Freudian psychological theories were still new and just starting to gain traction. In the novel, Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden is summoned to assist with the investigation of a shocking crime in a pastoral English village. Here, a local family has been brutally slaughtered, and the details simply do not add up for Madden. Several of his colleagues suspect the crime is the result of a robbery gone very wrong, but Madden thinks too many clues suggest that the murders were the killer’s (or killers’) focus.

This book first came to my attention when I was trying to find something new to read. To be honest, the cover intrigued me and then the plot description of the murder–a mysterious multiple homicide set in the 1920s–initially made me wonder if the book was loosely based on the infamous unsolved Hinterkaifeck murders, which occurred in a remote German village in 1922. After some research, I never found any indication that Airth intended such a connection or drew inspiration from that case, but I was still intrigued by the book’s premise.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this mystery, which is equal parts police procedural and psychological thriller. The featured case is both unsettling and intriguing. I also found the protagonist, Inspector John Madden, a refreshingly competent, ordinary, and likable main character. I’ve encountered a lot of detectives in books, movies, and television who are superhuman in their sleuthing abilities. I find them fun, but I also like more realistic depictions of crime solvers. For that reason, I appreciated that Madden, though a very good detective with well-honed instincts and plenty of experience, wasn’t always the one finding significant clues and that not all of his colleagues were morons. I particularly liked his supervisor, the pragmatic Scottish Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair. The other detectives working on the case were, as a rule, also well-drawn and complex.

I will admit, I did find this book a little slow at the beginning. My problem was in the first couple of chapters, rather than following Madden’s point of view, Airth decided to present Madden to the reader from the perspective of a junior constable on his first major murder case. I can understand the reasoning behind this decision–it illustrates to us what sort of detective Madden is but without the narrator just straight up telling us. However, because of this, the book initially spends too much time dwelling on this character’s anxiety about approaching the situation and repeating his observations of how haunted Madden, a widower and World War I veteran, appears. My initial reaction to this was, “If I have to read 400 pages of this guy’s neurosis, I’m not finishing this book.” Mercifully, once at the crime scene, the focus shifts away from this constable, and the narrator transfers us to the more experienced Madden. The pace picks up from this point, and after that, I had a hard time putting the book down.

Though this book is set in the 1920s, I didn’t really consider it a historical mystery. I don’t think the book really captures period detail about everyday life in the way I would expect a historical mystery to, so readers who especially enjoy that aspect of this genre may be disappointed. The two exceptions to this were highlights of the book for me, though. I thought Airth did a wonderful job of presenting an investigation that relied on what in the 1920s was cutting-edge technology. Because these detectives don’t have computers and cell phones, they solve the case through a lot of legwork that entails sending telegram requests to offices for information, poring through documents, and interrogating witnesses. Airth kept the police procedural aspects of his story realistic but without ever seeming boring.

Another aspect of the novel that struck me as realistic is the very real sense of loss and confusion that hang over the characters as a result of the war. Historians always stress what a cataclysmic event World War One was for those who lived through it, and Airth presents that well without subjecting readers to a lecture. He effectively conveys the unease of returning veterans, as well as a conflicted sense of relief and regret from those who did not serve.

One small problem I did have with the book–which I hesitate to go into too much detail about, for fear of spoiling it–is I didn’t find a romantic subplot in it very believable or compelling. I didn’t dislike the characters involved, but I also didn’t care about the relationship and was always eager for the narration to revert back to the investigation. That could be my own personal reading preferences at work–I have little tolerance for romance in mysteries. I’m there for the crime-solving. (Someone else needs to read this book and compare notes with me on their thoughts about this aspect of the book.) Regardless, this subplot was not overly distracting.

This book encompasses several mystery genres and doesn’t fit easily in any of them. Despite its British setting, it does not share much in common with classic British mysteries. It has a much darker tone. In that sense, it reminded me some of American hardboiled fiction/noir from the 1920s and 1930s, but even then, it didn’t really remind me of that genre. I found it more quietly atmospheric than most of those books I’ve read. NoveList Plus suggests that Airth’s books would intrigue those who love Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books but don’t mind a darker tone. That’s probably a fair comparison, but Airth’s books made me think more of some of the Scandinavian murder mysteries I’ve read, particularly Karin Fossum’s, specifically the psychological emphasis of the book and also the types of detectives involved.

If you’re intrigued by the review, definitely check out this book. Just click on the cover at the beginning of the article, and you’ll find more information on our online catalog. Likewise, don’t forget there are more books in this series. If you’re interested in any of the sequels, click on their covers below, and they’ll also take you to our catalog.

The Blood-Dimmed TideDead of WinterThe Reckoning





Are you interested in reading this book? Have you read Rennie Airth’s John Madden series before? Who are some of your favorite mystery authors? Tell us in the comments!


Author: berryvillelibrary

"Our library, our future"

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