Ironic, isn’t it? Some of the best English mystery novels are written by people who aren’t British. Consider the work of Elizabeth George, an American born in Ohio, and the Texan Deborah Crombie. To my mind, they’re easily the equal of Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson, among the living, as well as the late P. D. James, and much better by far than long-overrated Agatha Christie. But it’s a mistake to overlook the John Madden series of Scotland Yard mysteries by South African author Rennie Airth. The six British police procedurals in this series stand up to the work of any British mystery author in memory.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
In these suspenseful crime novels, set in England from the First World War to the aftermath of the Second, Airth tells the story of Scotland Yard detective John Madden and his physician wife, née Helen Blackwell. John is a veteran of the Great War, unhinged by his experiences in the bloodbath in France and by the deaths of his wife and daughter in the influenza epidemic. Helen comes into his life just in time to help nurse him back to health.
Insightful historical novels as well as gripping mystery stories
Airth follows the brilliant detective through weeks or months of often frustrating effort to solve some of the most challenging cases to confront Scotland Yard in the twentieth century. In the process, we view the evolution of English society through three decades of painful readjustment as the class certainties of the Old Order make way for democracy and the British Empire crumbles. These are skillful English police procedurals, equally intriguing for the light they cast on the past and for the suspense of Inspector Madden’s cases.
Airth’s description of the methods employed by the police are meticulous. Unlike so many police procedurals, which are typically written to lionize law enforcement, Airth describes each investigation, warts and all, with sometimes lazy and incompetent officers, weasel-like superiors, slow-moving bureaucracies, and other inevitable features of complex, real-world cases that demand brilliance as well as superhuman patience on the part of the lead investigators.
1. River of Darkness (1999) 451 pages ★★★★☆—Rennie Airth’s John Madden series spans the world wars
John and Helen meet in River of Darkness, set in the years following World War I, when John is assigned to an exceptionally brutal murder case in the countryside that taxes his skills and his already questionable emotional stability. Through an introduction from Helen, John enlists the help of a noted Viennese psychiatrist who assists him with an early version of what we now know as psychological profiling. The psychiatric insight eventually puts an end to a gruesome series of serial murders, leading John to the killer. >>Read more
2. The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2004) 451 pages ★★★★★—A fascinating historical mystery novel
A decade later Germany is in the throes of a Nazi takeover, and England trembles. The Depression is raging worldwide, driving jobless men across England to become “tramps” and wander through the country, sleeping in the rough. As we learn at the outset in this second book in Airth’s series, John is peacefully retired with Helen on a farm far from Scotland Yard. When he chances upon a brutally murdered corpse on a walk through the countryside, his yearning for action comes to life once again.
The officer in charge of the investigation, an old friend in a senior post on the force, takes advantage of John’s eagerness to become involved again and seeks him out for advice. John circumvents his anxious wife’s efforts to keep him out of the investigation and eventually plays a key role in solving the perplexing case. This is a chilling mystery in which a diabolical serial rapist and killer leads the detectives on a months-long investigation that haunts them all until its shattering conclusion. >>Read more.
3. The Dead of Winter (2009) 428 pages ★★★★★—A gripping World War II English police procedural
Paris, May 1940. A Jewish furrier has just converted most of his wealth into diamonds. As he prepares at home to leave France, with the Nazis on the outskirts of the city, he is brutally murdered by an intruder. Three and a half years later, a young Polish woman meets her death on the street in the dark of night in London. At first, it appears to be a random attack. But veteran Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair at Scotland Yard and the detective overseeing the case, Billy Styles, are convinced it isn’t. The young woman’s death kicks off many months of intensive police work involving Sinclair, Styles, and long-retired Detective Inspector John Madden. This is the engrossing tale Rennie Airth relates so skillfully in The Dead of Winter, the third of the six English police procedurals of the John Madden Mysteries. >>Read more
4. The Reckoning (2014) 294 pages ★★★★★—A terrific English police procedural from Rennie Airth
Again, Madden is drawn out of retirement into a baffling new murder case in the countryside. His former protege, Billy Styles, now a Detective Inspector himself, has turned up a letter on the desk of the victim that mentions Madden for no discernible reason. Naturally, the reason lies hidden at the heart of the tale, slowly coming into focus as Styles, Madden, and their colleagues pursue the investigation. It soon becomes evident that a link exists between this and a homicide hundreds of miles to the north in Scotland, and, quickly thereafter, a third murder extends the pattern. As the inquiry unfolds, more and more police resources are brought into play, including not only Styles’ boss and his boss’ boss at Scotland Yard but Madden’s own former “guv’nor” and friend there, retired to a neighboring property. >>Read more
5. The Death of Kings (2017) 363 pages ★★★★☆—Solving a cold case in post-war England
Though retired, Madden has lost none of his taste for mystery. A request from his old friend and former boss, Angus Sinclair, reawakens his instincts as a detective and sends him out on an unauthorized investigation into an eleven-year-old murder. A flashy young actress had been killed in the midst of a weekend-long party attended by “the Duke of Wales’ set.” Angus had closed the case in quick order. A wandering farmhand had confessed, been convicted, and later hanged. But Angus now fears that the wrong man had been punished for the crime. Since he’s immobilized with gout, he has asked Madden to take another look at the case.
The story’s setting, and the circumstances it describes, are worth the price of the book. The turmoil and destruction of post-war England brilliantly illustrate the folly of war. Four years after the end of World War II, London, Canterbury, and other cities still lie in ruins. The British Empire is breaking up. Severe rationing of meat, gasoline, and other goods is still in effect in England. Despite the democratizing effect of the war, and the efforts of the Labour Party, the traditional class distinctions are still very much in evidence. As a snapshot of post-war England, The Death of Kings works exceedingly well. >>Read more
6. The Decent Inn of Death (2020) 368 pages ★★★★☆—Retired Scotland Yard detectives face off with a suspected war criminal
The Decent Inn of Death is set in 1951. As the tale opens, John and Helen are on vacation in Venice. John’s friend and former boss, former Detective Superintendent Angus Sinclair, unwisely takes it upon himself to play detective and follows up a suspicious death that the local bobby had considered accidental.
Thus, Angus sets out on the trail of a man he fears may be a Nazi war criminal. But he soon finds himself in hot water, ignoring Helen’s repeated warnings not to overexert himself lest he trigger a heart attack. By the time John and Helen return from the Continent, Angus is in great danger because he has mislaid his pills (probably nitroglycerin) —and the man he is investigating appears to be poised to commit murder. Yet only when John and his erstwhile colleagues from Scotland Yard arrive on the scene do the bodies start to fall. Thus begins another terrific English police procedural in the John Madden Mysteries. >>Read more
About the author
Rennie Airth is the author of the six entries in the John Madden mystery series as well as two other novels. Earlier in life, he worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters. Airth was born in South Africa in 1935 but now lives in Italy.
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