Rennie Airth’s John Madden series spans the world wars

john madden trilogy: River of Darkness by Rennie Airth

In three suspenseful crime novels set in England between the two wars, South African writer Rennie Airth tells the story of Scotland Yard detective John Madden and his wife, nee Dr. 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. Helen comes into his life just in time to help nurse him back to health.


River of Darkness (John Madden #1) by Rennie Airth

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They meet in the first book, River of Darkness (1999), 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 to the limit.  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.

A decade later Germany is in the throes of a Nazi takeover, and England trembles. As we learn at the outset of The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2004), the second book in Airth’s series, John Madden 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.

Set in 1944, a dozen years later, John is drawn into another murder case when a young Polish girl who helps out at his farm is mysteriously murdered as The Dead of Winter (2009) commences. The police assigned to the case are reluctant to see more than a chance act of violence, but John uncovers a complex back-story involving an aged German-Jewish neighbor, a French art dealer, Nazi atrocities, and a fortune in stolen diamonds.

The John Madden series continues after these first three novels with The Reckoning (2014) and The Death of Kings (2017).

Rennie Airth writes with consummate skill, unfolding his complex plots with ease and painting fully three-dimensional portraits of the characters in these three engaging novels. If you’re attracted to ably-written crime stories that bear no resemblance to the formulaic drawing-room whodunits of years past, you’ll enjoy these three books. Read them in chronological order, though. The reading experience deepens as you observe the aging protagonists live out their lives.

For additional reading

There have been six books to date in the John Madden series, the first of which appeared in 1999. I’ve read them all (including the first three, which I read before I launched this blog). Here, I’ve reviewed The Reckoning (A terrific John Madden procedural from Rennie Airth), The Death of Kings (Solving a cold case in post-war England), and The Decent Inn of Death (John Madden #6) by Rennie Airth (Retired Scotland Yard detectives face off with a suspected war criminal).

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