Every mystery novel possesses characters, a plot, and a setting—but one of those three elements tends to be dominant in each. For example, most long-running series of detective novels, such as those of Jo Nesbø or Michael Connelly, tend to be character-driven. We read those stories primarily because Nesbø’s Harry Hole and Connelly’s Harry Bosch carry us along from book to book. Similarly, Agatha Christie’s whodunits and Dan Brown’s thrillers are plot-driven, as are many police procedurals and locked-room mysteries. And the best historical mysteries draw us in because they carry us away to a distant time and place. It’s unusual for an author to balance all three elements with aplomb. But Rennie Airth has been doing that successfully all along in his six-book series of John Madden mysteries. And that’s fully in evidence in the series’ second entry, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, a historical police procedural.
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
John Madden’s backstory
Madden was a homicide detective at Scotland Yard when the First World War broke out in 1914. Like most of England’s men of prime age, he went to war in France. For years, like millions of others, he was trapped in the mud and cold and thunder of the trenches, witnessing death all around him again and again. When he returned home to his wife and young daughter and resumed his police career at Scotland Yard, death suddenly came closer to home. His wife and daughter died in the flu epidemic, and Madden spiraled into despair.
Then, not long afterwards, while working a complex multiple-homicide case in the countryside, he met a young woman doctor and fell deeply in love. So deeply, in fact, that he left the Met and bought a farm to settle down with her, resuming the life he had cherished as a boy growing up on a farm. And there he is as this novel opens, when his former colleagues from Scotland Yard drag him into another murder case.
The Blood-Dimmed Tide (John Madden #2) by Rennie Airth (2004) 468 pages ★★★★★
A historical police procedural set in the English countryside
It’s 1932, and the Depression is raging worldwide, driving jobless men across England to become “tramps” and wander through the country, sleeping rough. John and Helen are driving through a small hamlet called Brookham, a few miles from their home well outside London. There, they stumble across the bobby from their own village, who had been called over to search for a missing 12-year-old girl, Alice Bridger. Madden insists on joining the search—and it’s he whose insight leads him to Alice’s body, hidden by the side of a creek and gruesomely mutilated.
Thus begins a troubling case that soon draws in Madden’s old boss and the top brass at Scotland Yard when a second girl’s body turns up not far away from the first. It’s 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.
About the title, by the way. Obscure titles and the epigraphs on which they’re based often baffle me. And the title and quote from William Butler Yeats prefacing this novel did, too, until I’d read a fair way into the story. Then it made all the sense in the world. So, for what it’s worth, here it is: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
About the author
Rennie Airth was born in 1935 and is thus 88 years old as I write, but he is living in Italy and still writing books. It’s possible, then, that we will see a seventh book in the John Madden series.) He is South African. Airth had a long career as a correspondent for Reuters.
For related reading
The Blood-Dimmed Tide is the second in the John Madden series. To see all six books profiled, go to The engrossing John Madden British police procedurals.
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