River of Darkness by Rennie Airth

River of Darkness by Rennie Airth

It takes a serious case to bring Scotland Yard detectives to the countryside, but, without doubt, that is what the local Bobbies have on their hands. Detective John Madden, a hollow-eyed veteran of the Great War, has a knack for discovering the truth behind baffling crimes, even if his manner leaves some of the more politically savvy officers cold. In the case of the violent murder of a fine, upstanding family, the horrors presented are disconcertingly familiar to him, even if they do not match their otherwise bucolic village setting.

The mystery behind Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness unfolds in a time when class distinctions were still very real, but the 1920s was also a period of greater freedom, when some women, such as the village’s lovely Dr. Helen Blackwell, might discover other outlets for their interests and passions. All the while, men who had survived the war might not survive the battles that raged in their minds. Psychiatry was still in its infancy, and fingerprints, as well as casts of footprints and tire tracks, were the common limits of scientific investigation. The rest was up to logic, hard experience, curiosity, and intuition.

In that time of decorum and disillusionment between the wars, Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer—and later Charles Todd and Barbara Cleverly—mined its inherent tensions to create stories about detectives, amateur and otherwise, trying to bring some order to the chaos never quite left behind on the battlefield. South African author Rennie Airth’s inspiration for the novel was a scrapbook about his uncle, who served as a soldier and was killed in the Great War.

River of Darkness is the first John Madden mystery. It won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for best international crime novel in 2000 and was nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity awards.

The series picks up some years later with The Blood-Dimmed Tide, The Dead of Winter, The Reckoning, and The Death of Kings. If you have yet to make John Madden’s acquaintance, do not delay further.