A terrific John Madden procedural from Rennie Airth

police procedural

Every five years now the former South African journalist Rennie Airth brings out another novel about John Madden, an English police detective whose life spans the two World Wars. In The Reckoning, Airth’s fourth book, Madden has long since retired to his farm in the south of England with Helen, his devoted physician wife. It’s 1947, with much of London still in ruins from the Blitz, rationing of food and gasoline remaining in place, and the new Labour government preparing legislation for the National Health Service.

Not for the first time, 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.

The Reckoning (John Madden #4) by Rennie Airth @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The plot, with roots in both World Wars, is suspenseful and fascinating, but even greater rewards in The Reckoning are to be found in Airth’s meticulous description of the methods employed by the police in that era. Unlike so many police procedurals, which are typically written to lionize law enforcement, Airth describes the investigation, warts and all, with sometimes lazy and incompetent officers, weasel-like superiors, slow-moving bureaucracies, and other inevitable features of a complex, real-world case.

The Reckoning works as historical fiction, too. Airth, who lived through much of the time about which he writes — he was born in 1935 — succeeds in conjuring up the concerns and preoccupations of post-war England and of the wartime scenes that are central to the tale.

Previously, I reviewed the first three books in the John Madden series at Rennie Airth’s John Madden series spans the world wars.

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