South African author Rennie Airth has written seven novels, five of which feature Detective Inspector John Madden. The Death of Kings is the fifth. Set largely in southern England in 1949, The Death of Kings brings John Madden’s story well into his retirement from Scotland Yard. He now makes his home in the countryside with his wife Helen and adult daughter Lucy.
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 11-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 Death of Kings (John Madden #5) by Rennie Airth ★★★★☆
The story’s setting, and the circumstances it describes, are worth the price of the book. Post-war England is a brilliant illustration of 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 well.
The novel works reasonably well as detective fiction, too. For a time, the story appears to devolve into a simple whodunit. Guests at the posh party begin to come under suspicion. But then the tale becomes more complicated. Much more so. The suspense builds steadily. Even if you guess the culprit less than halfway through the book, as I did, you’re likely to enjoy the ride to the end.
Incidentally, the title, The Death of Kings, is from Shakespeare’s Richard II. But it’s difficult to see the connection with the story.
For further 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 River of Darkness (Rennie Airth’s John Madden series spans the world wars), The Reckoning (A terrific John Madden procedural from Rennie Airth), and The Decent Inn of Death (Retired Scotland Yard detectives face off with a suspected war criminal).
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