The setting is England. The first novel, River of Darkness, takes place soon after World War I, where a serial killer is charging into rural homes and slaughtering entire families. The second novel, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, takes place a decade later, in the depths of the Great Depression, and a homicidal maniac is targeting young girls for rape and murder. The third novel, The Dead of Winter (love that title), takes place in 1944, after D-Day but before the Battle of the Bulge, and an assassin for hire laying low in England during the war stumbles across a witness to one of his jobs who got away and leaves a trail of dead bodies behind him in a bloody search for the one person living who can testify against him.
The central figure of these novels is John Madden, first a detective inspector for Scotland Yard and then a farmer who in spite of himself is drawn back into the two subsequent cases. There are other great characters, too, Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, John’s boss, Billy Styles the boot constable, Helen Blackwell, the local doctor (love that name, too, Airth’s done his homework) and many others, and part of the genius of these novels is that we get to see how things turn out for everyone because we are dropped into their lives at ten-year intervals.
Another reason I love these books is that Airth doesn’t force us inside the minds of the killers (I am so sick of that). No, we learn about the villains one tiny piece of information at a time, just like the detectives do. These are police procedurals every bit as good as and maybe even better than Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, and I never ever thought I’d say that about any novels.
Instead, Airth takes us into the lives of the victims, fully fleshed characters who are practically neighbors by the time he’s done with them, and by then you’re so worried about whether the good guys are going to get there in time that you’re on the edge of your seat.
The setting is a you-are-there trip back to England in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, and again, because we get to drop in once a decade we get to see how things turn out. The first novel is all about the cost of war, to John and to the nation. If you teach a natural born killer how to kill in war, what do you think he’s going to get up to when you declare peace? The second novel is about what the powers that be will do to maintain that peace, and you will be every bit as disgusted as Angus is when you find out what they are willing to sacrifice in the name of national security. (Fuckers.) The third novel makes full use of world war as a plot device (there is a harrowing scene where the cops are about to make a raid and get blown up by a doodlebug instead), with fascinating detail of what it was like to live in London as well as the countryside during that time.
I just made a friend with a new iPad download River of Darkness, so they’re available as e-books, too. Go get ’em.
You know why I picked up the first of these books? Because many years ago, I stumbled across a paperback copy of another book Rennie Airth wrote, called Snatch.