River of Darkness by Rennie Airth
14 December, 2011
You all know I’m crazy about historical mysteries, right? OK, maybe I haven’t been reading as much as I used to, but that’s only your fault for putting too many other books in my path. My favourite genre is historical mysteries, especially those set in the medieval and interwar periods. And I have been meaning to read Rennie Airth’s Inspector Madden books for many years. And finally, I found the first in his trilogy, River of Darkness in my local library. Huzzah!
The river of darkness is the darkness that snakes through the human psyche which is often hidden away by genteel trappings but is nonetheless there and every so often cannot be suppressed and raises its ugly head, often resulting in violence and death. In the novel, this is what Inspector Madden and his team at Scotland Yard comes up against when they are sent to investigate a blood bath at Melling Lodge, in the sleepy village of Highfield. The whole household lies butchered and the beautiful wife is found naked with her throat slashed. But otherwise, she hasn’t been touched. As Madden delves into the mystery, he encounters similar tragedy elsewhere and is soon on the hunt for a serial killer unlike no other. The only clue he has is that the killer had fought in the Great War. As the killer prepares for his next putsch, will the police find him in time? And will Madden be able to overcome his own trauma as he makes friends with the village doctor who has also suffered loss in the war?
I don’t know why, but I was expecting something very, very dark. But in fact, River of Darkness is pretty easy to read. Although it does touch on some dark subjects such as post-war trauma and sexual deviance, there was something that lacked the gravitas I was expecting. I’m not sure exactly what. Maybe it was the writing style which was smooth and perhaps a tad too simple. Nothing wrong with that as I prefer it to unintelligeable prose.
The plot was pretty strong, although it bordered on the melodramatic, but then we are talking about murder and the darkest of human emotions. Airth also brings in the fledgling sciences of psychology and psychoanalysis which was interesting, especially the suspicion with which they were viewed by the police and media.
What I really liked about the book though, was the character of Inspector John Madden. A bruised individual who has lost everything and goes about his business because he has no other choice. There was something very tender about the cadaverous man, old before his time and carrying deep scars. His relationship with his boss, Chief Inspector Sinclair is companiable and built on respect. As well as the main mystery, Airth also delves into the hierarchy of Scotland Yard and life as a working detective.
All in all, River of Darkness was a well realised mystery and I’ll be looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, The Blood-Dimmed Tide and The Dead of Winter.